Pushing for Platform Transparency: An interview with IDDP Fellow, Brandon Silverman

August 25, 2023

Brandon Silverman

We're excited to introduce Brandon Silverman, the latest fellow at the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics (IDDP). Silverman’s professional journey has focused on leveraging social media platforms to cultivate online communities and drive impactful digital campaigns. This all began in 2011 with the creation of CrowdTangle, a startup that used Facebook data to create tools that help communities organize and connect. Through his leadership, CrowdTangle evolved into a pivotal social analytics tool, offering invaluable data on trending topics and the trajectory of online content.

After Facebook's acquisition of CrowdTangle in 2016, the tool became a valuable asset to newsrooms across the globe, helping journalists track and understand trending topics and conduct investigations into information shared on the platform. Throughout this time Silverman consistently prioritized enhancing transparency for social good, and as CrowdTangle evolved, it became an essential resource for researchers, election integrity groups and human rights organizations who sought to analyze and understand content on Facebook and Instagram and its role in and impacts on democracy.

However, Facebook eventually began to impose limits on CrowdTangle’s use as a transparency tool, and Silverman decided to step away from Facebook and CrowdTangle in late 2021. Since then, his commitment to advancing digital transparency has only intensified, with Silverman offering his expertise to lawmakers in shaping crucial transparency policies such as the European Digital Services Act and the U.S. Platform Accountability and Transparency Act

Silverman's deep engagement with social media data, combined with his dedication to transparency and shaping impactful policies, aligns seamlessly with our values at IDDP and we’re excited to have him join the team. As Silverman embarks on this new chapter with IDDP, he provides a glimpse into his experiences, the challenges he has overcome, and the insights he has gained in his pursuit of platform transparency.


Q: How do you perceive the role of social media in our lives and in democratic society today?

Brandon Silverman: Social media plays an undeniably significant role in our lives, politics, and democracy, with a transformative impact that we're just starting to grapple with. However, much of our current understanding of this role is primarily based on observational data, personal anecdotes, and in some unfortunate cases, even urban legends. For instance, consider the pressing topic of the impact of social media on children and their overall well-being. It's increasingly becoming a topic that is getting the attention of platforms and, even more importantly, regulators and lawmakers around the world. However, if you ask almost any researcher who studies the issue, they'll tell you we don't have all the data we wish we had to fully understand the issue and we run the risk of rushing into new regulation that could end up making the issue worse.


Q: Why is regulating social media platforms particularly difficult?

Brandon Silverman: The innate characteristics of social media platforms like Facebook – operating at an immense speed and scale – introduce significant complexities when it comes to regulation. Much of what happens within these platforms remains hidden within digital "black boxes," making it tremendously difficult to monitor, study, and comprehend their full impact effectively. This opacity often leaves regulators groping in the dark, making it challenging to craft effective regulations or pinpoint the specific issues that truly need addressing. The regulation attempts we make are often based on fragmentary understanding, making them less effective than they should be.


Q: You advocate for more academic access to social media platforms. Why is this important? And how does it contribute to a healthier information environment?

Brandon Silverman: The necessity for academic access to social media data is paramount, mainly because it facilitates researchers to conduct robust, in-depth studies leading to concrete, empirically based understanding and conclusions. By making informed decisions based on reliable data, rather than relying on anecdotal evidence or assumptions, we can lay the groundwork for well-founded regulations. This kind of transparency is what I believe will lead us towards a healthier, safer, and more inclusive internet, beneficial to all users. By embracing transparency, we can reveal the mechanisms that drive these platforms, consequently allowing us to craft effective strategies for managing and improving them.


Q: Apart from academic access, you mentioned the need for other parts of civil society to monitor these platforms. Why is this crucial?

Brandon Silverman: When it comes to the governance of social media platforms, I firmly believe that the principle of decentralization should be at the forefront. Given the immense speed and scale of operations on these platforms, expecting a single entity or organization to manage and control everything effectively is unrealistic and counterproductive. By allowing more parts of civil society to participate in studying, investigating, and flagging content, we can ensure a broader and more effective governance of these spaces. 


Q: Given your past experience with CrowdTangle and its relationship with Facebook, how do you see the intersection between commercial interests and transparency?

Brandon Silverman: Navigating the intersection between commercial interests and transparency is an ongoing challenge in the realm of social media platforms. In the case of CrowdTangle, even though it became an essential free tool to newsrooms worldwide under Facebook's stewardship, the limitations on transparency that Facebook imposed made it challenging to continue to serve the greater social good, as we initially intended. I believe it is essential for these platforms to balance their commercial interests with their societal responsibilities. Ensuring transparency is a critical part of this, as it allows us to understand these platforms better and, in turn, develop more effective regulation and control mechanisms.


Q: Can you shed some light on the significance of the European Digital Services Act and the U.S. Platform Accountability and Transparency Act that you've been instrumental in shaping?

Brandon Silverman: Both the European Digital Services Act and the U.S. Platform Accountability and Transparency Act are landmark pieces of legislation designed to govern the digital space better. These policies serve to promote transparency, accountability, and protection of user rights across the vast landscape of social media and digital platforms. My involvement in shaping these acts has reinforced my belief in the need for thoughtful, responsible regulations that prioritize the well-being of users and society at-large. If properly implemented, these acts can serve as guiding lights in our quest for a safer, healthier, and more inclusive digital world.


Q: What excites you about working with the team of fellows at IDDP? And what are your aspirations for this collaboration?

Brandon Silverman: I feel incredibly fortunate to collaborate with such an outstanding group of individuals at IDDP, all of whom are leading the vanguard in addressing transparency issues and advising lawmakers and regulators globally. The unique blend of groundbreaking research and technical acumen that this team brings to the table provides invaluable insights into the digital landscape. Each interaction with them is a chance for me to learn and grow. The collective ambition that resonates among us is to shape a digital future where the internet serves as a safe, healthy, and balanced platform that fosters thriving individuals and democracies. In this context, our goal is to ensure that the impending 'tsunami of regulations' is crafted carefully and thoughtfully to promote a positive digital transformation.