Swati Srivastava is a 2023-2024 Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Rebooting Social Media (RSM) at the Berkman Klein Center and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Purdue University, where she is also the founder and lead of the International Politics and Responsible Tech (iPART) research.
Tell us about the research question you’re hoping to address this year.
I will be focusing specifically on questions related to public responses to content moderation harms. With an emphasis on Facebook, I seek to understand how harms that extend from platforms’ content governance evolve in relation to the public’s perception over time, which, in turn, evolves in response to various challenges that emerge, like time. I seek to appreciate the split between perceptions of harm in the Global North and Global Majority, helping to appreciate a better view of how perceptions of content harms can differ from canonical/Western traditions.
What makes this question attractive as a subject of political science?
Within the subdiscipline of international relations (IR), scholars like to focus on power. If you think of the nation-state and corporations as apex predators, typical responses to the question of “who” has power would offer a view that the state and firms are locked in a zero-sum battle for the proverbial power pie. I would zoom out and say that power is not a finite pie, but rather, one that grows and changes over time. To this end, the question of the state-firm relationship fits neatly within the political science canon, where we often imagine power in absolutes (zero-sum) or relatives (relative-sum). This differentiation helps us understand the question of responsibility. Is it the state who is responsible? Is it the firm? Is it both? Identifying who is accountable requires us to understand the relations between the actors and how they exert power over publics.
What excites and worries you most about this area of interest?
I think one of the really exciting challenges for political science and international agent scholars is to take seriously lived experiences of different people in different publics, while not letting powerful entities off the hook, be they states or corporations. If we take, for example, recent calls for robust regulations, such as the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA), we see an immediate dilemma where a “Dark Brussels Effect” on regulatory norms—that emanate from power centers like Brussels or Washington, DC—may perversely empower less rights-respecting governments in taking stronger approaches to content moderation regulation.
It is worrying, however, that publics do not care enough about these issues, nor are they aware of them, and that regulatory paralysis at times takes precedence over keeping a check on corporate power. Regulators will feel like they can't go after their national champions, or they feel the issue is too complicated to write a really tough law and craft a means of enforcement. This sort of paralysis encourages inaction, and inaction is a response by any other means. I am worried about the responses to new innovations—must we be apathetic, discouraged to regulate, and await the coming of feared risks? We can and should take preemptory action well before risks materialize.
Brandon Sullivan is an incoming Ph.D. student in Boston University’s Department of Political Science. During the summer of 2023, he interned with the Berkman Klein Center’s leadership team.