Renate Künast is a member of the Bundestag for Bündnis90 / Die Grünen. She was consumer minister and parliamentary group leader of her party in the Bundestag.
Whether right-wing terrorist attacks, attacks on democratic institutions or hate campaigns against activists, journalists and politicians – radicalization and networking on the internet play an important role everywhere.
This network is largely in the hands of a few large corporations, and thus an enormous social responsibility.
Facebook, for example, has almost three billion users. The latest revelations by the whistleblower Frances Haugen show: Facebook is aware of this responsibility, but systematically subordinates it to profit interests.
The air for Facebook is getting thin. Three years after the revelations by Chris Whylie, the Facebook files now reveal that Facebook has its own research into the harmful effects of Instagram on young girls, but ignores them and keeps them under lock and key.
In addition, the moderation algorithm deliberately prioritizes polarizing content and divides Facebook users into two classes. Those with an extremely long reach, such as politicians or celebrities, are allowed to say almost anything, while others are sanctioned if they violate the Community Rules – the “house rules”.
Donald Trump was able to spread hatred unhindered for years
Donald Trump was able to spread hatred and disinformation unhindered for years. Posts from high-reach accounts cause the greatest damage! Again and again, public and parliamentary demands to better combat hatred and disinformation were rejected or the strengthening of protective measures after the US election was quickly withdrawn, although a massive campaign of doubting the election results was carried out. It ended with the storm on the Capitol on January 6th. We know about right-wing extremist online networks in Germany too.
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So what are we waiting for? Facebook will not voluntarily end its methods because emotions trigger clicks, excitement, and more clicks. This is good for advertising – the core of the business model. This needs to be regulated.
The Network Enforcement Act, which has existed since 2017, is of little help because it only forces action to be taken for criminal content after users report it. The transfer to the BKA will only apply from February 2022 due to poorly crafted work by the federal government. In addition, there is also a lawsuit against individual regulations. And the Community Rules are only checked in court in individual cases.
So we have long known that the core problem lies in the advertising-based business model and the worldwide quasi-monopoly of Facebook. Instead of today’s corporate culture, the political goal must be: People over Profit! By that I mean the well-being of the individual user as well as society and thus our democracy.
The German network enforcement law is too weak
Politically, we must work to ensure that there will soon be one – better and broader than the German NetzDG strong Digital Services Act for the entire European Union gives. It has to be a sharp sword. Comprehensive user rights, meaningful transparency obligations and strong supervisory structures are required. In a draft for the Digital Services Act it was stated that the platforms make it easy to understand for users which factors guide the recommendations and that there is also the option of adapting these parameters as a user. Microtargeting as an advertising practice also needs to be heavily regulated. This is because disinformation and hatred are also targeted at susceptible groups of people. And we need binding cooperation guidelines for the platforms so that more independent research can be carried out.
Facebook has often ignored disinformation, for example through lateral thinking accounts, and only deleted groups in one sweep and blocked accounts when the social pressure became too high. Corporations can of course also set up house rules and delete content. What is permissible in every analog marketplace is also permissible in the digital ones. But: transparent procedures and criteria are also required. This is exactly what Facebook fears, because publicly known criteria enable public debates and the need to justify inaction.
Citizens should be represented on social media councils
We are faced with the question: What can a democratic culture of debate look like that protects freedom of expression, but also effectively guarantees personal rights and, in particular, the protection of younger people? We cannot leave the answer to this question to the financial interests of Facebook and Co. The participation of civil society, for example through social media councils made up of experts, representatives of affected groups and drawn citizens, would be more democratic than the oversight board appointed by Facebook itself.
Hatred and agitation must not be economically viable. Young people in particular must not be left alone with the force and harsh criticism that the platforms (can) develop. Nothing essential will change by itself. We can see this in the current suggestions that nudging (“take a break” or reorientation of the algorithms for young people towards less politics) wants to protect teenagers. I think: that’s not enough.
A big thank you goes to the whistleblowers, whose lives have not become easier after going public. And a legal note: the federal government still in office has also messed up the implementation of the whistleblower directive into German law. Infringement proceedings are before us. However, we have to protect whistleblowers in order to gain access to information. In the face of global monopolies, that too is a necessary tool to finally put people before profits. At some point it will be too late.