Annual predictions are, I think you'll agree, mostly pretty rubbish. Vague, speculative and often too narrow to be useful, they're mostly used as space fillers during the holiday season.
But at the same time, the act of thinking ahead — which is the essence of a prediction — has merit, to me at least. It's an attempt to ready ourselves for what's coming down the line, a way to expose unknowns and a chance to steel us against surprises. For all that we know about 2022, with its elections and incoming regulations and the ongoing pandemic, it's going be another wild year for those working in online speech and content policy.
It's for this reason that EiM has got together with four brilliant independent newsletters — New_Public, Reboot, Tech Policy Press and the Information Ecologist — to collaborate on an exercise about what's coming in 2022. Each newsletter asked some smart friends the same question: What one idea, issue, person or event should people look out for in 2022?. Because each newsletter covers a slightly different area related to the internet and society, the 30+ answers were interesting in their own right but also exposed some fascinating trends.
Today's newsletter highlights some of those thoughtful responses and four themes that jumped out to me — I hope you enjoy it.
If you don't already, I recommend subscribing to the other four newsletters involved in this mini-project — each one will be showcasing different smart responses and chatting about it on Twitter next week on the hashtag #Lookoutfor2022.
All that's left to say is thanks for reading EiM in 2021 (especially those of you who read all 50 editions). Here's to a probably weird and hopefully wonderful 2022 — BW
1. Govern or be governed
Decentralisation has always been inherent to the internet but, through emerging cryptocurrencies, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), it is an idea that is reaching extreme levels of hype. So it was interesting to note that a number of responses picked out fresh thinking about internet governance as something to look out for in 2022.
"The hard question for the future of the social web is not ownership or control, as web3 folks are primarily focused on," Ethan Zuckerman, professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, noted. "It's governance." He went on:
"How do communities decide what speech and conduct they allow? How do we handle rulebreakers? Is tokenized democracy a reasonable way to answer these questions, or should we learn from existing communities?".
Julie Owono's thinking was along similar lines. The executive director of the Content Policy & Society Lab at Stanford University and a member of the Oversight Board, posed "the idea that [in 2022] we can use the multistakeholder approach, to create content policies and regulation, that are efficient and rights based" and that such an approach "can lead to solutions to some of the major challenges posed by content online." ICANN gives me some hope as far as this is concerned.
Carolina Are, content moderation and AI bias researcher at City University London, drew specific attention to the rights of sex workers and users who use their bodies for work. "While a solution for the regulation of various online harms will probably not be reached by 2022, we are coming to an understanding that Internet spaces cannot apply one-size-fits-all approaches to their governance without serious consequences." Are noted that last year's OnlyFans u-turn (EiM #125) is just the tip of the iceberg.
2. Speculate to regulate
If different self-governing models emerge in 2022, they will do so during what Harvard law professor evelyn douek calls "an explosion of regulation, proposed regulation (and) regulatory threats".
I've covered the progress of the UK's Online Safety Bill and the Digital Services Act, the European Commission's equivalent, here in EiM each week as well as bills moving through parliament in Canada, Brazil, Poland and elsewhere. But this is the year when it all comes to a head, according to douek:
"There's barely a regulator in the world right now that's not passing or drafting some law to deal with social media platforms. While the US Congress may not be able to stop yelling long enough to pass a bill anytime soon, other countries aren't waiting and local laws can have global effects (I'm looking at you, EU!). The legal environment for platforms is about to fundamentally transform."
What this looks like as far as the US and Section 230 go is certainly harder to foresee. Chris Riley, executive director of Brave New Software and R Street Institute fellow, says:
"Greater regulatory scrutiny of American tech companies in 2022 is an inevitability, and I predict it will develop to a hard law change, though the question remains open as to what form it will take and who will move first."
Paul Barrett, deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at NYU, said to look out for "the demolition derby in Congress" and wondered aloud whether "any vehicle for tech reform [can] survive, or will partisan strife (intensified by social media) doom the idea of reining in the platforms?".
Not all legislation is created equal though and Torsha Sarkar, a researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society India, warned about the rise of must-carry legislation that compels platforms to carry particular forms of speech:
"As more and more populist governments come to power around the world, they'd be looking to use social media-fuelled disinformation to consolidate their stronghold".
Sarkar recommended following the progress of India's Personal Data Protection Bill, which contains a clause to this effect.
3. Bearing harms
2022, like others before it, looks certain to bring about fresh challengers for dis and misinformation researchers and analysts, something several people noted in their responses.
Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, called out "the further decentralization of organized extremist movements" and said "the continuation of the trend will produce new and more frustrating challenges to those who monitor and work against their negative impacts." He has a new report on online mobilisation and the January 6 riots being published in the coming days.
"With algorithms being able to write convincing news stories at a breathtaking pace, I can only imagine how much worse it will get. Can social media companies adequately figure out how to stop it, and will their efforts be enough to deter malicious actors from doing it anyways and finding ways around their policing?".
We'll have to see.
4. Who cares? Everyone
One mini-thread that I didn't expect to emerge from our kind-of predictions was the ubiquity of the concept of care, for both good and nefarious means.
"From scarcity centered, new digital markets to the slow work of community building, 'care' will be everywhere," said Xiaowei Wang, media fellow at the University of Southern California and creative director at Logic Mag. They added:
"Now, more than ever, we all want care, to be cared for, or self-care. New and old platforms will appeal to that desire. It's no coincidence that Meta's recent event centered the joy of being "present with the people we care about". Remember, discernment is a gift."
Shannon Mattern thinks 2022 will see "the institutionalization of neoliberalized practices of "care" and "compassion" which are often enacted, accommodated, and extended through the "flexibility" and "hybridity" made possible by digital technologies." The professor of anthropology at The New School for Social Research noted that:
"It has become increasingly clear over the past two years that these qualities and conditions, naturalized as inherently virtuous, are instead means of transforming institutional and social problems into individual concerns that, we are told, can be addressed through unpaid affective (and often technologically mediated) labor."
For now, I'm going into 2022 with the series of questions that Wang poses: "What does caring do? Who asks us to care? Does 'care' cultivate life-affirming, underlying conditions that recognize the ecosystem we live in, or does it end at the boundary of the user?".
Most people we asked to participate shared ideas or issues but there were some specific recommendations of people and organisations that merit mentioning too:
Bread & Net - "The Arab region's preeminent digital rights conference! While the conference is for and by the region, it hosts speakers from all over the world (and hopefully will be back in person in Beirut soon enough) on a range of topics" - Jillian C York, author and director for international freedom of expression at Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"The Disinfo Defense League has been quietly building capacity and power for awhile now, "organizing to disrupt online racialized disinformation." Look out to hear a lot more about their work next year, starting with the policy platform they just released with more than 35 organizations behind it" - Melissa Ryan, CEO and chief strategist of CARD Strategies.
"The person to watch in 2022 is Jennie Rose Halperin. The librarian and longtime digital community builder is the executive director of Library Futures, an organization that launched this year. As Halperin puts it, Library Futures champions the "right to equitable access to knowledge" including wifi access, fair pricing for ebook licenses, data privacy and other concerns of library workers and library patrons alike. With Halperin's thoughtful leadership, the organization has established itself in this short time as a crucial force in information and digital access. I'm excited to see what Halperin accomplishes next year." - Joanne McNeil, writer and author of Lurking.