A new report we authored and which was published by the Harvard Kennedy School and New America lays out a blueprint for how this might work. The starting point is to require a lot more clarity about how digital media works — how we are targeted with particular kinds of ads, why we are getting more of one kind of content than another and what makes our digital media menu different from that of our neighbors'. A lot of this information could be given directly to consumers. Even more can be made available to independent researchers and journalists.
There also should be a form of auditing and oversight for the automated systems that control political information. Just like we insist on independent audits of pharmaceuticals before they hit the market and we conduct spot checks of the health and safety standards of restaurants and hotels, we should be able to check and see whether the masters of the digital universe are playing games or playing fair.
And finally, we need a major increase in consumer protection of our privacy rights in this industry. The valuable asset in this market is personal data, which is used to form audience profiles that are in turn sold to advertisers and marketers. What really determines who sees what on digital media isn't a partisan engineer, but an algorithm that predicts based on a vast amount of personal data what kind of content is most likely to keep a particular consumer clicking. If that's not the logic we want deciding what political information we get, there is very little that can be done about it. Give more control over data to individuals, and it will fundamentally change who holds the power of information.
If Silicon Valley's answer to conspiracies of political bias continues to be "trust me," they will never see the end of it and ultimately it will hurt their businesses. In the long run, showing consumers what's happening behind the curtain is not only good for the bottom line, it's good for the country.
—By Dipayan Ghosh, Pozen Fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on media, politics and public policy; and Ben Scott, director of policy and advocacy, Omidyar Network. They are the co-authors of "Digital Deceit II: A Policy Agenda to Fight Disinformation on the Internet."