How the PATA Act Hopes to Reduce Hate on Social Media

Cracking open the black boxes that power social media platforms

Key Takeaways

  • A new bipartisan PATA bill calls for social media platforms to share data with independent researchers.
  • The biggest hurdle to understanding online harm is a lack of data, argue advocates.
  • Failure to comply will attract sanctions.
Person drawing social media icons on a chalkboard

Justin Lewis / Getty Images

Social media transparency advocates are rooting for a new bill that they hope will help make the platforms less toxic for users.

The Platform Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA) bill isn't the first legislation that aims to introduce transparency into the secret sauce that powers popular social media platforms. However, while the earlier attempts such as 2020's Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act failed to pass muster, PATA comes when there's growing angst against social media, following the Facebook Papers leaks and the Senate testimony of Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri.

"If the Facebook Papers have taught us anything, it is that there are real harms that are being done to sensitive groups of users, such as teens. We absolutely do need research into those harms, but it's important that it be done by researchers outside the platforms themselves so that even if the findings of those research projects are unflattering, they still see the light of day," explained Laura Edelson, a Ph.D. candidate at NYU Tandon School of Engineering and lead researcher at NYU's Cybersecurity for Democracy project, in an email to Lifewire.

 Peeling Away the Layers

White dots with various people standing on top of them

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

PATA was announced by Democratic Senators Chris Coons (Delaware), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), and Republican Senator Rob Portman (Ohio).

In a joint statement, the trio claimed the bill will help increase the accountability and transparency of social media platforms and help ensure that they aren't "legislating in the dark."

PATA will ask the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to specify requirements for social media platforms to make certain data available to qualified independent researchers. It defines qualified researchers as those affiliated with a university and are pursuing projects approved by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is an independent federal agency.

The whole purpose of the exercise is to peek inside the siloed data, which the Senators contend have significantly hurt some users in the past.

"Over the last several months, we've seen deeply concerning evidence of how social media platforms are harming our families, our communities, and our democracy," remarked Senator Klobuchar in the joint statement.

Edelson agrees, saying, "the biggest barrier to research into combatting online harms is the lack of data." She believes the bill would help correct this wrong by enabling access to "several classes of data that are technically public, but practically inaccessible."

For instance, she points to the ad data, and high engagement public data on the platforms, which she argues is technically public but isn't of any use since there's no mechanism for extracting the data and crunching it for research purposes, which in her opinion, is a real barrier to understanding how harmful content spreads virally.

Secret Algorithms

Person using mobile phone in bed

Yiu Yu Hoi / Getty Images

The bill specifies that social media platforms are obliged to comply with requests for data once approved by the NSF. Non-compliance would cause the company to lose the protections that provide a legal, safe harbor for social media platforms and help distance them from the content posted on the platforms.  

"Social media has connected the world in ways that were difficult to imagine only a decade ago, but the last few years have also made clear the tradeoffs that come with that," noted Senator Coons in the joint statement.

Coons is referring to the rise in hate speech, fake news, and the increased risk of depression, loneliness, and self-harm, that psychologists have long associated with social media, without any quantifiable proof because of lack of data, which is something he hopes PATA will be able to correct by giving researchers access to the data to connect the dots.

Edelson, who studies online political communication, has, in the past, had her work banned by Facebook. PATA, if and when it's signed into law, will legitimize the kind of research she's involved in. 

"Right now, social media companies are effectively black boxes. Their content promotion algorithms are hugely impactful on our society, but we really don't have any way of inspecting them and seeing how they behave. This [PATA] would fix that," believes Edelson. 

Was this page helpful?