This interview is part of a report on the workshop.
Can you tell us a couple of things about your background and your current position?
Kristof Varga: I used to be Research Director for Demos Hungary, a progressive think tank, and following that position I have worked in international development, philanthropy and the Open Society Foundations. I also set up and managed the Public Division of Bakamo.Social, a market research company working for commercial companies, where we served exclusively mission-based initiatives, governments, the EU, NGOs, foundations and not-for-profit organisations.
What work have you done, if any, for the European Commission or the Parliament?
Kristof Varga: We have not worked directly with them, but we did research for a think tank that collaborates with the Member States’ security apparatus, studying whether there was a connection between online disinformation and radicalisation.
I appreciate the report is not public, but can you share any insights about the results?
Kristof Varga: I can say there are so many other issues online that it is not necessarily the content behind things going viral. We found that making radical comments or promoting radical ideas and promoting disinformation was just the surface of the issue. These are just acts that people engage in to express their dissatisfaction and anger towards their own elite. It is a means to externalise frustration about the perceived gap between the self-serving elite and themselves, the people.
Can social media exacerbate already existing divisions within society? All those underlying grievances?
Kristof Varga: Yes, mostly there is already something present within society and social media becomes the ‘playground’ where this is acted out by the people. As time goes by, other issues will tend to surface. The issues debated are interchangeable, people may be annoyed because of migrants one day, or because of banks and globalisation the next. What remains is the emotion or the societal problem of the elite being disengaged from the rest of society.
So you see it as an externalisation rather than a causation, not that social media are causing radicalism?
Kristof Varga: It is just a playground, yes, that amplifies content easily with very little investment on the people’s part.
At present, both the USA and the EU are discussing regulation. Do you think regulation may have an impact in containing the problem in societies that are really fragmented or challenged? Will regulating Facebook, for instance, solve the problem?
Kristof Varga: Well the fact of high inequality will not disappear. What I think regulation can do is to limit the ability of bad actors who are attempting to take advantage, to do so. The amplifying effect can also be dampened with regulation, which I personally think is a good thing. Because this effect really distorts the perception of social media users and it is not their fault, as they do not know what is behind those algorithms.
Do you mean that amplification gives the false impression of acceptance by the wider community?
Kristof Varga: Yes. The algorithms are essentially there to serve a business interest, which is fine, social media are a business after all and that is what shareholders expect.
Some of these platforms promote themselves as supporters of democracy, by assisting either politicians or citizens. Given the fact they are private companies, can they accommodate a more civic role?
Kristof Varga: No. I do not think they can. Nor do I think they should. Because that would be messing with the transparency of their own set of objectives. They are a business, out there to make money in a competitive field – it is not competitive at the moment, but in theory it is. This is capitalism and, if they try to mess with it by bringing in other incentives, it is not going to work and we are actually seeing this. I do not think social media can assume the role of a promoter of the public good because they are for private gain. It is OK for the state to step in, because that’s why we have states.
Given the fact you are working at the crossroads of policy-making and digital communication research, do you often find yourself in situations where policy-makers do not understand the issues we are talking about?
Kristof Varga: Yes, a lot. Everybody understands that what we are discussing is important. Many people know about the dangers that come with social media, so if you are working in policy and politics you have definitely heard about disinformation and you do look at social media as a tool for mobilisation, but in general there isn’t a deep understanding of how platforms work and how their research works. Most policy-makers and officials think social media research is confined to monitoring analytics.
As a researcher, what are you lacking most of the time? Access to data or access to where decisions are made?
Kristof Varga: From my research angle, the algorithms were not that important, because we were doing research on the end result; what is visible publicly, online; the public discourse. In terms of missing data, over the last year, Facebook has changed its policies several times regarding what is available and what is not. That gives researchers a bit of a headache. More consistency would be welcome.
Have you seen many debates on the EU in your research?
Kristof Varga: A piece of research is underway at the moment on how the EU is perceived in four countries in the Balkans and central Europe, so we will have to wait for the conclusions.
Any last comments?
Kristof Varga: I would like to remind everyone virality is not something that you can generate at the moment. We know much about it, but there is no recipe to make something go viral, so it will probably remain a challenge. We may never figure it out. It could even come down to simple luck.