Towards Digital Platforms and Public Purpose

July 06, 2023

Letter from the Co-chair

My first job out of grad school was with the International editions of TIME as one of its fact-checkers. We were responsible for the accuracy of every name, date, fact and figure we published, a responsibility based on the premise that there was some shared understanding of what constituted “truth” and “proof” until new evidence emerged.  In the years that followed I became a writer, then an editor, and ultimately editor-in-chief of TIME in 2013. I found myself leading a global newsroom through a time of momentous change—economic, political, technological, and epistemic. Print media was in decline, along with institutional trust more broadly; social media was on the rise, dividing audiences into parallel worlds of “alternative facts” in pursuit of power and profit. Every legacy newsroom wrestled with the ways technology was pushing us to rethink how we communicate information, engage with our audience, protect our writers and staff, and stay in business.

My co-chair, the late Secretary Ash Carter, who we sadly lost in October 2022, spent his career working to make America safer and more secure. When he took the Oath of Office as the United States’ 25th Secretary of Defense, he swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic. He shared stories with me of how emerging technologies required the Defense Department to be agile, encouraging him and his team to view the threat landscape differently. From countering foreign interference to monitoring radicalization through online mediums, how we could keep the world safe needed to acknowledge the transformational nature of the digital ecosystem.

Secretary Carter and I joined forces to launch Harvard Kennedy School’s Democracy and Internet Governance Initiative in 2021 because we both shared the perspective that digital platform governance is one of the great issues of our time. Today, our foreign and domestic enemies seek to weaken our democracy through the erosion of truth, the amplification of lies, and the weakening of the body politic. Our adversaries use our digital platforms to carry out their information operations; all too often, our platforms cannot, or will not, stop them. Additionally, there are limited mechanisms for consumer protection online, leaving individuals to deal with harassment, infringement of privacy, and exploitation.

And we have all experienced this change. The technological tools born from the Internet are complex, and challenge incumbent institutions in all corners of society. Parents must balance the benefits of social inclusion for their kids with the dangers platforms pose to mental health; political leaders leverage social media to reach, and sometimes manipulate, their audiences; Americans struggle to understand what is truthful online, all while being sucked into the addictive and polarizing vortex of social media.

It is long past time we act - to protect individual rights and freedom; to protect our public goods and information ecosystem; and, ultimately, to protect democracy. This final report is a culmination of our research and findings over the last two years. We hope the content contributes to the rich dialogue surrounding digital platform governance and helps us move from conversation to action.

Nancy Gibbs

Director, Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy

Download the Full Report

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

"Towards Digital Platforms and Public Purpose."Report, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School. July 6, 2023.