Can Facebook destroy our lives

Unregulated social networks destroy democracy

IT companies such as Facebook, Twitter or Google and their toxic ecosystem have helped influence the referendum on the UK's exit from the EU, implement the genocide of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar and have trampled on the fundamental rights of millions of British citizens kicked. There are weighty allegations in the interim report of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the British Parliament, which was published on Sunday.

For over a year, MPs interviewed dozens of witnesses, obtained over 150 written statements and even traveled as far as Washington to investigate the phenomenon of the spread of false news and targeted misleading information. The focus was on social networks, their business models and how these affect voting decisions, such as the Brexit referendum. The investigation took off again after the data scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica became known. In the end, it became a process, writes the Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who reported from the start, which scrutinized the “entire structure, machinery and future of our democracy”.

The 89 page long and far-reaching interim report does not mince words. Facebook, in particular, gets off badly. The social network showed itself to be uncooperative during the investigations, quite apart from the questionable methods that are part of the day-to-day business of the group. “Facebook has all the information,” write the MPs. “Outsiders don't have them unless Facebook decides to publish them. Facebook was unwilling to share information with the committee, which bodes ill for future transparency. "

IT companies are not "neutral"

The British Parliament now wants to change that and is calling for concrete measures. So far, these few, monopoly operating providers have been hiding behind the flimsy excuse of being “neutral” platforms in order to evade regulation. But they are by no means neutral, just as the term “platform” is misleading: “The word 'platform' suggests that these companies act passively and simply publish information that their users upload - without influencing what we see or do not ”, it says in the report. But that would not be true, after all, that is exactly their business model: "They want to engage us, from the moment we log in to generate revenue with the advertisements we see."

But instead of putting them in outdated drawers like “platform” or “publisher”, a completely new concept for the regulation of social networks is needed. This should come into being by the end of the year and be cast into a bill by the government. Ultimately, the corporations should be able to be held liable for “harmful and illegal” content that they distribute, among other things. The MPs have an eye on both content that users report to the operators as well as content that the corporations "should find easy to recognize themselves".

In practice, this is likely to amount to the use of artificial intelligence, otherwise the amount of data that accumulates every day can hardly be managed otherwise. However, for many reasons, this technology is still a long way from being able to reliably recognize content and classify it correctly. "The cure could be worse than the disease," warn the fact checkers of "Full Fact", who were interviewed as experts by the committee. "We have to act in such a way that both freedom of expression is preserved and the damage caused by disinformation is limited."

New transparency rules

Less controversial, easier to implement, and presumably effective are the other proposals that the committee makes. Just as companies are accountable to the tax office, for example, they should in future disclose their security mechanisms and algorithms to regulators. New rules for political campaigns should ensure more transparency. All digital ads should have an easily accessible legal notice and reveal who posted the ad and who paid for it. Mailbox companies, behind which anonymous financiers can hide in order to place incomprehensible political advertisements, should be a thing of the past. A public register with all digital advertisements is also included in the specifications. And users should be able to object to certain forms of microtargeting.

This highly controversial, manipulative form of customized election advertising, combined with misleading information, had serious consequences for the UK. As the report reveals, there have been numerous shady connections between Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and other data firms and the Leave campaign, which is pushing for the EU to leave. This had, in part, illegally and with the help of psychograms targeted “dark ads” on social networks and is said to have had a decisive influence on the outcome of the Brexit vote.

Russia is deep inside

The Brexit exit campaign received strong support from Russia, which is interested in destabilizing the West. The report devotes a separate chapter to the interrelationships. It was only in the course of the investigation that the many connections with Russia were revealed at every step of the way, the conservative committee chairman Damian Collins told the Guardian. "There wasn't a point where we thought, 'Oh, it's not as bad as we feared,'" he said. "The connections just seem to have become deeper and more significant."

So far, such forms of unfair influencing have been easy, since practically unregulated, partly legal, partly illegally obtained user data can be used and misused at will. The report and its recommendations will certainly cause heated discussions, but in its entirety it represents the first step worth mentioning in order to contain the steadily and unhindered growing power of the large platforms. An even more detailed report is to follow in the autumn, which will shed more light on the role and mechanisms of online advertising.

However, whether the British government, which is overwhelmed by the EU exit negotiations, can actually develop a coherent law is another matter. Admittedly, the problem is not limited to the United Kingdom alone. The EU Commission warns, like a prayer wheel, of possible manipulation of opinion on the Internet. However, the message does not seem to have really reached most of the EU member states. A code of conduct for online platforms initiated by the EU Commission to curb disinformation in their networks has so far remained unsuccessful. Originally planned for July, the release has been postponed to September.

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About the author


Tomas grew up in Vienna, worked there for various providers and also studied political science. He received his journalistic training at Heise-Verlag, where he wrote for Mac & i, c't and Heise Online. He can be reached at +49 30 577148268 or [email protected] (PGP key) and tweets sometimes more, sometimes less at @tomas_np
Published 08/01/2018 at 1:16 PM