Response or Comment
Harvard Law Review Forum
In Content Moderation as Systems Thinking, Professor Evelyn Douek, as the title suggests, endorses an approach to the people, rules, and processes governing online speech as one not of anecdote and doctrine but of systems thinking. She constructs this concept as a novel and superior understanding of the problems of online-speech governance as compared to those existent in what she calls the “standard [scholarly] picture of content moderation.” This standard picture of content moderation — which is roughly five years old — is “outdated and incomplete,” she argues. It is preoccupied with anecdotal, high-profile adjudications in which platforms make the right or wrong decision to take down certain speech and not focused enough on the platform’s design choices and invisible automated removal of content. It draws too heavily from First Amendment contexts, which leads to platforms assessing content moderation controversies as if they were individual judicial cases.
Douek calls her approach “both ambitious and modest.” The modest part calls for structural and procedural regulatory reforms that center content moderation as “systems thinking.” The notion of systems thinking conveys a generalized approach of framing complexity as a whole comprised of dynamic relationships rather than the sum of segmented parts. The ambitious part is dismantling the standard picture of content moderation scholarship and challenging the resultant “accountability theater” created by platforms and lawmakers alike. In Douek’s view, it is this “stylized picture of content moderation” that is to blame for regulators assuming “that the primary way they can make social media platforms more publicly accountable is by requiring them to grant users ever more individual procedural rights.”
There is much to like about understanding content moderation as a complex, dynamic, and ever-evolving system. Particularly useful for an article titled Content Moderation as Systems Thinking that calls for regulation of technology, there is rich and detailed scholarship on content moderation in both sociotechnical theory and the law. Indeed, most of the academic work on content moderation is done by sociotechnical theory scholars who study content moderation and platform governance using systems-thinking and systems-theory frameworks. Sociotechnical systems theory posits that an organization is best understood and improved if all parts of the system — people, procedures, norms, culture, technology, infrastructure, and outcomes — are understood as relational and interdependent parts of a complex system. In analyzing private law under this theoretical framework, Professor Henry Smith describes systems as “a collection of elements and — crucially — the connections between and among them; complex systems are ones in which the properties of the system as a whole are difficult to infer from the properties of the parts.” Examples of systems abound at all levels of nature and society: from cognition to social networks or economies, or as Smith proposes, systems of law.
Systems thinking, then, according to those that study it, is one step removed: “literally, a system of thinking about systems.” This definition is, of course, tautological; even the authors of the only article Douek cites on the topic seem confused. But the takeaway of “systems thinking” is much the same as that described by sociotechnical theory and by Smith: an “understanding of dynamic behavior, systems structure as a cause of that behavior, and the idea of seeing systems as wholes rather than parts” — wholes that create “emergent properties” whose origins cannot be traced to any one part or interplay of the system. It is both the ocean and the wave, the forest and the trees, as well as all of the interactions and the emergent properties resultant.