Over the past year, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have become increasingly outspoken advocates for healthier social media—a topic that is clearly near to their hearts, given the horrendous vitriol and harassment they have faced online and in the press.
By partnering with organizations that aim to understand technology’s impact on society and vocally critiquing the state of online life in the media, the couple are using their clout to push for change in the current digital ecosystem. In an essay for Fast Company last August, Prince Harry called on business leaders to rethink their role in funding the advertising system that underlies the misinformation and divisive rhetoric that’s often shared on social platforms.
“This remodeling must include industry leaders from all areas drawing a line in the sand against unacceptable online practices as well as being active participants in the process of establishing new standards for our online world,” he wrote.
Now, social media is facing an inflection point, just weeks after a violent mob stormed the Capitol in an attack that was conceived, plotted, and stoked primarily online. Powerful platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube responded by suspending Donald Trump’s accounts, while Amazon and Apple cut ties with Parler, a social network that was used by the rioters. But experts and regulators believe that more must be done to reform social media.
Against this background, Prince Harry is once again imploring people to pay attention to the problems social media have wrought. In a wide-ranging interview with Fast Company, he explains why social platforms must be held accountable for the Capitol attack and the circumstances that enabled it, and why we must remodel the digital world before it’s too late.
FC: Six months ago, you wrote an essay for Fast Company in which you asked companies to take action to ensure the meaningful reform of our “unchecked and divisive attention economy.” How has your perspective on social media’s role in society changed over the last few weeks since the attack on the U.S. Capitol?
Prince Harry: When I wrote that piece, I was sharing my view that dominant online platforms have contributed to and stoked the conditions for a crisis of hate, a crisis of health, and a crisis of truth.
And I stand by that, along with millions of others who see and feel what this era has done at every level—we are losing loved ones to conspiracy theories, losing a sense of self because of the barrage of mistruths, and at the largest scale, losing our democracies.
The magnitude of this cannot be overstated, as noted even by the defectors who helped build these platforms. It takes courage to stand up, cite where things have gone wrong, and offer proposals and solutions. The need for that is greater than ever before. So I’m encouraged by and grateful for the groundswell of people who work—or have worked—inside these very platforms choosing to speak up against hate, violence, division, and confusion.
FC: Why is this topic so important to you? How was your outlook affected by the well-documented online harassment you and your wife have faced in the U.K.?
PH: I was really surprised to witness how my story had been told one way, my wife’s story had been told one way, and then our union sparked something that made the telling of that story very different.
That false narrative became the mothership for all of the harassment you’re referring to. It wouldn’t have even begun had our story just been told truthfully.
Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex
We are losing loved ones to conspiracy theories, losing a sense of self because of the barrage of mistruths, and at the largest scale, losing our democracies.”
But the important thing about what we experienced is that it led to us hearing from so many others around the world. We’ve thought a lot about those in much more vulnerable positions than us, and how much of a need there is for real empathy and support.
To their own degree, everyone has been deeply affected by the current consequences of the digital space. It could be as individual as seeing a loved one go down the path of radicalisation or as collective as seeing the science behind the climate crisis denied.
We are all vulnerable to it, which is why I don’t see it as a tech issue, or a political issue—it’s a humanitarian issue.
From an early age, the guiding principle in my life has been about the duty to truth, the pursuit of compassion, and the alleviation of suffering. My life has always been about trying to do my part to help those who need it most, and right now, we need this change—because it touches nearly every single thing we do or are exposed to.
FC: Where do we go from here? What do you think needs to change to create an online atmosphere where truth, equity, and free speech are all prioritized?
PH: I ask the same thing every day and lean on the experts to help give guidance on how to reform the state of our digital world—how we make it better for our kids, of course, but also for ourselves—now.
The avalanche of misinformation we are all inundated with is bending reality and has created this distorted filter that affects our ability to think clearly or even understand the world around us.
What happens online does not stay online—it spreads everywhere, like wildfire: into our homes and workplaces, into the streets, into our minds. The question really becomes about what to do when news and information sharing is no longer a decent, truthful exchange, but rather an exchange of weaponry.
Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex
What happens online does not stay online—it spreads everywhere, like wildfire: into our homes and workplaces, into the streets, into our minds.”
The answer I’ve heard from experts in this space is that the common denominator starts with accountability. There has to be accountability to collective wellbeing, not just financial incentive. It’s hard for me to understand how the platforms themselves can eagerly take profit but shun responsibility.
There also has to be common, shared accountability. We can call for digital reform and debate how that happens and what it looks like, but it’s also on each of us to take a more critical eye to our own relationship with technology and media. To start, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Consider setting limits on the time you spend on social media, stop yourself from endlessly scrolling, fact-check the source and research the information you see, and commit to taking a more compassionate approach and tone when you post or comment. These might seem like little things, but they add up.
Finally, there’s a responsibility to compassion that we each own. Humans crave connection, social bonds, and a sense of belonging. When we don’t have those, we end up fractured, and in the digital age that can unfortunately be a catalyst for finding connection in mass extremism movements or radicalisation. We need to take better care of each other, especially in these times of isolation and vulnerability.
FC: Since the Capitol riot, big tech companies from Twitter to Amazon have exercised their power by making determinations about who gets to use their products. Do you think companies should have the power to make decisions about who has access to some of the most prominent platforms on the internet?
PH: We have seen time and again what happens when the real-world cost of misinformation is disregarded. There is no way to downplay this. There was a literal attack on democracy in the United States, organised on social media, which is an issue of violent extremism. It is widely acknowledged that social media played a role in the genocide in Myanmar and was used as a vehicle to incite violence against the Rohingya people, which is a human rights issue. And in Brazil, social media provided a conduit for misinformation which ultimately brought destruction to the Amazon, which is an environmental and global health issue.
In a way, taking a predominately hands-off approach to problems for so long is itself an exercise in power.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about Speakers’ Corner, an area in London’s Hyde Park which is home to open-air debate, dialogue, and the exchange of information and ideas. I used to go past it all the time.
This concept of a ‘public square’ isn’t anything new—it can be traced back to the early days of democracies. You get up there and speak your piece. There are ground rules. You can’t incite violence, you can’t obscure who you are, and you can’t pay to monopolise or own the space itself. Ideas are considered or shot down; opinions are formed. At its best, movements are born, lies are laid bare, and attempts to stoke violence are rejected in the moment. At its worst, intolerance, groupthink, hate, and persecution are amplified. And at times, it forces lines to be drawn and rules or laws to emerge or be challenged.
Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex
I think it’s a false choice to say you have to pick between free speech or a more compassionate and trustworthy digital world.”
I’m not saying we should abandon technology in favour of Speakers’ Corner. Rather, it’s that we should avoid buying into the idea that social media is the ultimate modern-day public square and that any attempt to ask platforms to be accountable to the landscape they’ve created is an attack or restriction of speech. I think it’s a false choice to say you have to pick between free speech or a more compassionate and trustworthy digital world. They are not mutually exclusive.
With these companies, in this model, we have a very small number of incredibly powerful and consolidated gatekeepers who have deployed hidden algorithms to pick the content billions see every day, and curate the information—or misinformation—everyone consumes. This radically alters how and why we inform opinions. It alters how we speak and what we decide to speak about. It alters how we think and how we react.
Ultimately, it has allowed for completely different versions of reality, with opposing sets of truth, to exist simultaneously. In this, one’s understanding of truth does not have to be based in fact, because there’s always an ability to furnish some form of “proof” to reinforce that version of “truth.” I believe this is the opposite of what we should want from our collective online community. The current model sorts and separates rather than bringing us together; it drowns out or even eliminates healthy dialogue and reasonable debate; it strips away the mutual respect we should have for each other as citizens of the same world.
FC: How do you plan to use your platform to push for change when it comes to hate speech, algorithmic amplification, and misinformation in 2021? Since you’re not a trained expert on these topics, why do you think people should listen to your perspective?
PH: I know enough to know that I certainly don’t know everything, especially when it comes to tech—but when you see this as a humanitarian issue, then you see the spread of misinformation as requiring a humanitarian response.
This is why my wife and I spent much of 2020 consulting the experts and learning directly from academics, advocates, and policymakers. We’ve also been listening with empathy to people who have stories to share—including people who have been deeply affected by misinformation and those who grew up as digital natives.
What we hope to do is continue to be a spotlight for their perspectives, and focus on harnessing their experience and energy to accelerate the pace of change in the digital world.
FC: Your Archewell Foundation has collaborated with several groups and institutions that aim to rethink technology and study its impact on people. As a philanthropist, why are you supporting research efforts within this space?
PH: If we’ve learned anything, it’s that our dominant technologies were built to grow and grow and grow, without serious consideration for the ripple effect of that growth. We have to do more than simply reconsider this model. The stakes are too high, and time is running out.
Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex
We have to do more than simply reconsider this model. The stakes are too high, and time is running out.”
There are a lot of incredible people and digital architects thinking about—or already working on—innovative and healthy platforms. We need to support them, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it can make commercial sense. And we have to look at the state of competition and ensure that the landscape doesn’t indiscriminately squeeze out or incentivise against fresh ideas.
I believe we can begin to make our digital world healthier, more compassionate, more inclusive, and trustworthy.
And it’s time to move from rethinking to remodelling.
FC: Given your concerns about divisiveness, misinformation, and hate speech online, how have your views on using social media yourself changed over the last few years? How do you approach it now and are you planning to make any changes?
PH: It’s funny you should ask because ironically, we woke up one morning a couple of weeks ago to hear that a Rupert Murdoch newspaper said we were evidently quitting social media. That was ‘news’ to us, bearing in mind we have no social media to quit, nor have we for the past 10 months.
The truth is, despite its well-documented ills, social media can offer a means of connecting and community, which are vital to us as human beings. We need to hear each other’s stories and be able to share our own. That’s part of the beauty of life. And don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that a reform of the digital space will create a world that’s all rainbows and sunshine, because that’s not realistic, and that, too, isn’t life.
There can be disagreement, conversation, opposing points of view—as there should be, but never to the extent that violence is created, truth is mystified, and lives are jeopardised.
We will revisit social media when it feels right for us—perhaps when we see more meaningful commitments to change or reform—but right now we’ve thrown much of our energy into learning about this space and how we can help.
FC: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about our ability to build a healthier online ecosystem?
PH: Optimistic, of course, because I believe in us, as human beings, and that we are wired to be compassionate and honest and good. Aspects of the digital space have unfortunately manipulated (or even highlighted) our weaknesses and brought out the worst in some.
We have to believe in optimism because that’s the world and the humanity I want for my son, and all of us.
We look forward to being part of the human experience—not a human experiment.