Social Circuit Breakers

Posted by Daniel Cohen on January 15, 2021 · 10 mins read

Exponential Process: A process where the rate of increase itself increases with time.

In 1798, the Reverend Thomas Malthus published his most famous text: An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he argued that while food supplies grow linearly, population grows exponentially, and consequently in the near future, population growth would outpace food supplies, leading to massive famine and death. Fortunately, less than 50 years later, the discovery and exploitation of South Pacific islands rich in bird guano, a potent fertilizer, facilitated a dramatic increase in the efficiency of farming. A few decades later, the commercialization of the Haber-Bosch process for the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen finally eliminated the possibility of Malthus’ dire predictions coming true, at least for the foreseeable future.

Yet Malthus’ commentary on the dangers of exponential growth rings true today, perhaps more than at any time in history. One need look no further than the COVID-19 pandemic for evidence of how much damage an exponential process can inflict. This is not to say that all exponential processes are dangerous; compound interest is essential to the structure of the modern financial system. Rather, the lesson we learn from Malthus is that exponential processes must be carefully managed. The sudden availability of cheap fertilizer was a lucky break, and not one we should expect to happen again.

On March 9th, 2020, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had its largest single day percentage drop since 1987. Fears of the economic effects of the growing COVID-19 epidemic triggered a nearly 8 percent drop. But it could have been much, much worse. Just moments after the opening bell, as the Dow fell through 7%, the NYSE’s automated systems tripped what’s known as a “circuit breaker”, halting all trading for 15 minutes.

These trading curbs, as they’re officially known, were implemented by the NYSE following a similar crash in 1987, in order to give traders, and trading systems, time to pause and reconsider what in many respects is a runaway exponential process. As the price drops, more people start selling stocks, triggering a further drop in price. On March 9th, the circuit breaker did its job. The market stabilized, and while the loss was still massive, the momentum of the initial sell-off was stopped.

At the same time as the chaos of COVID-19 was ravaging Wall Street, an equally pernicious pandemic was sweeping across the Internet, this one memetic, rather than biological. As originally conceived, and as used here, a meme is much like a virus; a piece of information that is “contagious” between people. Memes are often associated with lighthearted content, like pictures of kittens and babies, but the same motivation and infrastructure that allows this content to spread is equally effective at transporting much more dangerous ideas. In the last week, we’ve seen the pernicious damage an uncontrolled meme can inflict, both physically and mentally, on a society.

But as dangerous and powerful as exponential processes are, they all have an intrinsic weakness: lower their reproduction rate below 1, and instead of exploding, they collapse. In the case of a viral pandemic like COVID-19 this is achieved by mandating mask wearing, and encouraging social distancing. As an exponential process, the “infodemic” raging across the internet can be managed analogously.

The beginnings of a response have already begun to take shape. Voices spreading disinformation have been deplatformed by major social media companies, and at least one website blamed for inciting violence has been banned by major cloud providers. But this is not sufficient. The same way that the US travel bans against Brazil, Europe and China at the beginning of the pandemic only delayed the inevitable, the surgical strikes against the major sources of disinformation will not hold back the tide.

One solution is more moderation. Major social media services already employ thousands of contractors to sort through often graphic and disturbing content, to determine what can stay, and what has to go. However, this is expensive, even for multi-billion dollar corporations, and as it becomes necessary to avoid public backlash, is a form of regulatory capture. The expansion of manual moderation will become increasingly expensive, and alarmingly, freeze out new entrants who don’t have the capital to comply with implicit or explicit moderation requirements.

If we apply what we know about exponential processes, a simple solution presents itself: limit the reproduction rate of memes. This can be expressed as a simple requirement:

“A meme can be seen by a maximum of 1 basis point (0.01%) of the global population, on a single service, in a 24 hour period.”

Obviously, there’s some room for interpretation (What constitutes “a single service”?) but the spirit of the rule is clear. By limiting the number of views a meme can receive in a single day, we limit the rate at which it can spread. In the same vein as NYSE circuit breakers that give traders time to pause and reevaluate their positions, this rule gives communities time to pause and absorb information before it reaches everyone. This is clearly a tradeoff; viral videos will no longer be able to rack up millions of views in a few hours, but the benefits are manifold.

Lowering the reproduction rate of viral memes gives investigators time to catch up. This could take the form of social media services self-moderating their content, or fact checking their users, as Twitter began doing for some political content over the summer. Alternatively, it could be journalists and private citizens doing their own fact checks. In either case, an artificially limited reproduction rate gives the truth, which is almost always less scintillating, time to gain ground.

It also has the potential to make social media less addicting. This is bad news for services that rely on a constant stream of eyeballs to generate advertising revenue, but it is almost certainly good for society as a whole, and may incentivise the pursuit of alternative revenue streams better aligned with the collective good.

Critically, implementation of this rule is not onerous, for small startups and established players, alike. This reduces the likelihood of regulatory capture, and doesn’t create an unfair advantage for large corporations.

Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.

  - Jonathan Swift, 1710

Capitalism is fantastic at allowing parties to make efficient decisions when those decisions have immediate monetary consequences. It loses effectiveness when decisions are either hard to quantify, or only have long term ramifications. In my view, the role of government regulation is to map long-term, qualitative costs into the monetary domain of capitalism. A chemical plant dumping toxic effluent into a river has a short-term incentive to dispose of waste as cheaply as possible. Regulations on clean water that impose a fine for this behavior recalibrate the cost/benefit analysis to include the long term environmental and societal cost, and thus allow the process of capitalism to come to the best decision, with all the costs factored in.

Recently, there has been talk of revising Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which provides immunity for websites from being sued or prosecuted over content posted to them by private users.

Slightly less well-known is the provision that provides protection from liability for actions of the website in the course of moderating or removing content. In other words, a service can’t be sued for the act of removing content that its owners have deemed offensive.

It doesn’t seem to be a large leap to condition this immunity on enforcement of a rule such as that proposed above. Imposing a cost on the negative externalities of viral content allows the societal cost to be represented in the common, monetary language of executives and shareholders alike, incentivizing companies to consider social good as part of their strategy.

Regardless of the solution, it’s time to have a discourse about the role that the internet and the information we glean from it plays in our lives, and in the evolution of our society and culture. The deaths of five Americans last Wednesday are testament to the fact that it has never been more important.

Image Credit: Flickr User Angie, under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 Generic