Major internet platforms could do a lot more to create healthy social media by adopting measures to keep people safe and encourage users to see one another as human, according to new research that surveys their most dedicated users.
The researchers, who are part of a project called Civic Signals that is devoted to building healthier online spaces, asked 20,000 internet users across 20 countries about their use and perception of platforms including messaging apps Telegram, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger; social networking tools including LinkedIn, Reddit, Facebook, and Pinterest; and search engines Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
They focused on the platforms’ superusers—people who reported using a particular platform the most of any in its category—and those users’ perception of their go-to product along 14 dimensions. For instance, researchers asked whether the platforms encourage people to treat one another humanely, seeing and valuing each other as individuals. They also looked into whether the platforms ensure people feel safe—something important to many social media users after reports of harassment, doxxing, and threats across many platforms.
“Online safety is particularly important to consider for vulnerable people such as children, and for marginalized groups, who can be further marginalized by threats to their safety,” according to the research report.
Other criteria focused on the platforms’ function in society: whether they support civic action, meaning helping people identify and address “issues of public concern,” according to the report, and whether they help bring attention to concerns shared by a number of people.
The study comes as regulators and social media companies consider how to reform social media in the wake of this month’s Capitol riot in Washington, D.C., and the reputation platforms have built for triggering addictive behavior and political division. Its goal is to create a set of criteria that platform designers and the public can look at as they consider how to build social media that can be popular, inclusive, and beneficial. While social media sites function in many ways like traditional public spaces such as parks or town squares, most weren’t designed with civic good or societal well-being in mind, the researchers argue.
To understand the most important elements that signal the health of a social media platform, the researchers spoke to a wide array of experts and ran user focus groups in multiple countries. Ultimately they came up with this set of 14 principles, says Civic Signals cofounder Talia Stroud, who is also the director of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. The exact types of signals the researchers look at may continue to evolve over time with further research, she emphasizes. “We should be very clear that we do not see this is as the final list,” she says. For now, the list includes:
- Inviting everyone to participate
- Ensuring people’s safety
- Encouraging the humanization of others
- Keeping people’s information secure
- Cultivating belonging
- Building bridges between groups
- Strengthening local ties
- Making power accessible
- Elevating shared concerns
- Showing reliable information
- Building civic competence
- Promoting thoughtful conversation
- Boosting community resilience
- Supporting civic action
The team also asked survey participants to identify which of those dimensions were important for the products they used frequently. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that users identified different positive traits on different platforms. That makes sense, since the various apps and websites are used for a variety of purposes: Users don’t expect the same benefits from using Google that they do from Pinterest, or connect with the same people on Twitter that they do on Facebook Messenger. LinkedIn and Twitter, for instance, were rated relatively highly for their ability to “give the public access to people in power,” while Instagram was rated highly for giving people “the chance to feel connected to other people and groups.”
But some traits—like encouraging people to treat others humanely—didn’t show up as particularly strong attributes of any of the platforms.
“There are particular signals where just no platform does especially well,” says Civic Signals cofounder Eli Pariser, who is also the author of the book The Filter Bubble. “And one that I’ve been thinking about is humanization, which seems like it would be good if the internet were doing a bit more of that.”
Still, it’s not necessarily the case that every social network will be good for every person, or every use, the researchers say—nor should every platform necessarily seek to embody each of the criteria.
“Because each space is different and unique, no healthy space prioritizes all of these signals,” they write. “But many of these elements are at work in spaces where people find value. Conversely, spaces where a number of these elements are absent tend to be less successful and open the door to more harms.”
The 14 signals in practice
The Civic Signals founders say they have had some discussions with big tech companies about their work. But they also see the signals as useful to smaller and nontraditional operations, including publicly operated civic forums and smaller platforms like the Vermont-run Front Porch Forum, a network of neighborhood-based sites.
“We have a realistic view of what can happen in traditional tech-startup world, and we don’t think that all of these public functions can be served just by private companies alone,” Pariser says. “There’s a role for public infrastructure as well.”
For example, the researchers point to PublicSpaces, a Netherlands-based coalition including public broadcasters, the national library, and other institutions that aim to build open-source platforms for content sharing, discussion, and other functions. These platforms are designed to emphasize privacy and “the well-being and empowerment of users” rather than to optimize for profit.
Many existing networks are also adept at certain traits: YouTube scored points for a category called “inviting everyone to participate,” although it only performed about average in terms of “showing reliable information,” which users saw as important. Reddit, sometimes seen as home to trolls and forums governed by esoteric rules, was ranked highly by its users for promoting thoughtful conversation, which they see as valuable. They also gave the discussion platform good marks for helping them “feel connected” and for being able to “provide opportunities for different groups to interact,” according to the survey.
Avid users of other platforms didn’t always believe that their platform of choice provided the traits they saw as desirable: Facebook’s superusers shared that they really value when a platform keeps user information secure and cultivates a sense of belonging, but they gave Facebook its lowest rating in those areas. Other platforms, including Pinterest and LinkedIn, scored higher for a sense of security, although Stroud suggests that may be partially because people share less sensitive data there than they do on other platforms.
People’s assessments of the platforms varied based on their own characteristics, as well: The study found people with more education rated platform performance lower across the various dimensions, as did younger users and more conservative users. Users between the ages of 18 and 34 were more likely to say that platforms improved their lives than older ones. The researchers say that may be in part because they have less, if any, memory of a time before ubiquitous digital services, suggesting the services have only become more integrated with people’s lives over times.
“It’s harder for younger users to imagine their lives without these things,” Stroud says.
But, the research suggests, it’s also possible to imagine platforms that deliver what users want—features like connections to friends and community members, access to relevant and true information, and places to organize around civic issues—without so much of the negativity people associate with today’s social media companies. Horrifying events like the Capitol riot, devastating trends like online harassment, and positive developments like coronavirus mutual aid groups and online get-out-the-vote efforts all reinforce that what starts on social media can have real-world consequences for the well-being of everyone—whether they’re on particular platforms or not.