At a recent virtual panel on redefining free speech in the digital age, Knight Institute Litigation Director Alex Abdo cautioned about the lack of transparency for what he called the “new physics of public discourse.”

For Abdo, pre-digital communications among individuals followed largely knowable, well-understood rules—it was a “fairly open and obvious process governed, basically, by the laws of physics: You hear what you’re next to or you hear what you choose to expose yourself to.” 

But the rules of social media platforms are fundamentally different, he told an online conference on “digital media policy for future crises,” organized by the Fletcher School’s Murrow Center for a Digital World on February 18.

“What you’re exposed to,” Abdo explained, “is not determined by the ordinary rules of physics, or by your own independent choices. It’s determined by algorithms that prioritize conversations and your feeds in ways that we don’t understand, that you can’t understand, because they’re based on machine-learning algorithms whose training data is not disclosed to the public and so can’t be [easily] studied.”

As a result, he warned, “We don’t know what effects those new rules are having on public discourse, on our society, on elections, on our media ecosystem. And we desperately need to better understand those new physics of public discourse so that we can come up with solutions, or imagine alternatives, or … reject the frame entirely.”

Watch the hour-long program—which also featured Jessica Dheere of Ranking Digital Rights and Joan Donovan of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, with moderator and Murrow Center Director Edward Schumacher-Matos.