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Tech Shock: Poppy Wood on digital threats to democracy

In this week’s Tech Shock podcast, Poppy Wood, UK director of Reset – an initiative to counter digital threats to democracy – speaks to Vicki and Geraldine about what’s gone wrong with the online world – and how we might fix it. 

Changing the system

Poppy Wood believes platforms need to change the ways they nudge and manipulate their users through engagement driven algorithms.

She argues that we can’t expect parents to prevent online harms until tech companies change their algorithms, to make their platforms less of a ‘wild-west’ for children. 

“If the harmful business model is still available to our kids, we don’t stand a chance as parents,” she says. 

Nor can we expect individuals to be immune to misinformation. It can be easy to find yourself deep in conspiracy theories and unreliable stories, but this shouldn’t be the case. For example, looking up alternative medicines online shouldn’t mean you are then pushed towards Covid-sceptic or anti-vaccine content – yet because of the existing online model, this is what happens.. 

This doesn’t mean we have to curtail free speech: Wood says people should be allowed to say harmful or wrong things. But outrageous content shouldn’t go viral precisely because it’s controversial or shocking, which is what happens at the moment. “It’s about slowing the virality, and the deluge of information and content, rather than about what that content actually is.”

Engaging parents

Asking parents to bear the burden of dealing with online harms to children may not be fair - but, as Vicki points out, the Online Safety Bill has gone to the other extreme, leaving parents out entirely. They appear to have no role at all, in contrast to the approach in the US, where legislation ensures that until children are 13, parents have to give consent for their children’s activity online.

Wood also wants parents’ essential role in childrens’ online lives recognised, but notes that it can be hard for users to know what’s actually going on inside the ‘black boxes’ that determine experiences online. 

“We’ve got to move from us parents not knowing anything, to feeling comfortable in what we do know, and confident that the internet really is safe by design for our kids,” she says. “The platform should be dealing with this, not parents.”

The Bill calls for greater online media literacy, to help develop children’s critical thinking and awareness online. Wood argues that evidence for what works is difficult to find - though there’s clearly a need to empower parents with critical thinking skills as much as with detailed knowledge of platforms and services. 

Combating misinformation

Wood believes that to tackle misinformation, it’s necessary to recognise that by the time someone is deep in an online content rabbit hole, they’re very hard to reach.

Fact-checking and critical thinking has to come in early.  Rather than debunking, she says, “pre-bunking is the most effective tool for dealing with misinformation.” 

Meanwhile, changing the algorithms that spread divisive content and create polarised groups is essential. 

The future of internet safety

The wellbeing and safety of children should be at the heart of the design of online products, in the same way it would be in a local playground, Wood says. She is positive about the future, even though she thinks it might take a while to get to where we need to be. 

“One of the roles of philanthropic organisations is to inject cash into new pieces of research to promote organisations and allow them to flourish without strings attached,” she says.

The challenges are not only huge; they’re constantly changing. The tech landscape is evolving all the time, making it difficult – but no less worthwhile – to stay upstream. However, Wood is positive about the future, even though she thinks it might take a while to get to where we need to be. 

“Legislation is never going to be able to keep up with the emergence of technologies,’ she said. “But if it’s flexible enough, there’s hope.”


LIsten to episode 9 of Tech Shock, season 2: “Poppy Wood”

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