Facebook promises 10,000 new jobs in the EU and announces the ‘metaverse’, which ‘some people think could be the future of the internet,’ BBC reported two day ago. The announcement comes as Facebook deals with devastating reports and faces increased calls for regulation to curb its influence. Facebooks ‘growth over safety’ policies have been made public by the whistleblower Frances Haugen. The former employee, who worked as a product manager on the civic integrity team at Facebook, recently testified before the US senate, that the company intentionally treated users differently and ignored reports about the dangerous impact of Instagram on the mental health of teenagers. According to slides reported by the Wall Street Journal, 32% of teenage girls surveyed said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.
In an article about Facebook, the German weekly paper ‘Die Zeit’ * titles ‘The power crumbles’, and foresights that ‘There is hope that oversight of the algorithm will do more to curb hate and incitement’. At the same time the BBC celebrates the ‘metaverse’ and explains that it is an online world where people can game, work and communicate in a virtual environment, often using VR headsets. It is ‘an embodied internet where instead of just viewing content – you are in it.’ ‘The metaverse has the potential to help unlock access to new creative, social, and economic opportunities. And Europeans will be shaping it right from the start,’ Facebook said on their blog. Facebook’s CEO promises the creation of 10,000 new jobs in the European Union.
We are progressing very quickly in terms of innovation, but we have no idea where we are heading and where we want to reach and at present both governments and the private sector rely on neoliberalism and market forces and allow them to decide the direction of innovation and this is extremely dangerous, assesses the Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari in BBCs Newsnight, the present situation.
Where are we heading? Hate and incitement in Facebook
Josephine Ballon, head of the legal department of the Berlin-based organization HateAid, can provide examples of all kinds of hate that run rampant on Facebook, even though they have long since been reported to the network. A comment in which a politician is called a freak: ‘That carrion should be locked away.’ A post in which members of a certain nationality are called ‘subhumans.’ Insults, racism, incitement of the people: Ballon deals with this professionally. HateAid has already advised more than 1,400 victims of digital violence; during the pandemic, it was ‘virtually overrun.’ Ballon says, ‘Facebook still deals with hate messages in a very arbitrary way.’
In Germany all three parties currently holding exploratory talks for a new government in Berlin, have announced in their election programs that they will take action against hate and incitement. The SPD, the Greens and the FDP want to tighten controls on digital corporations and find ways to limit their power. The SPD even writes about ‘taming’ the ‘overpowering platforms.’
That sounds utopian? For years, it would probably have been seen that way. But something is currently happening, and in several places around the world.
Europe, for example, is already working on corresponding rules that would hit it hard. In the U.S., Democrats and Republicans are unusually united on this issue. And it’s possible that the new German government will put digital corporations on the agenda of next year’s G7 forum, at which seven leading industrialized nations will meet and Germany will hold the presidency. A political front is forming in Berlin, Brussels and Washington that has never been seen before.
The company has a lot of figures to prove how it has been combating hate, incitement and disinformation since the Network Enforcement Act came into force in 2017. In the first half of 2021, Facebook blocked or deleted 2842 posts with inciting content in Germany. The group made 968 threats disappear and 1519 posts that called for criminal acts. In Germany, 129 specially trained employees deal with legally questionable content alone. This is what the group’s transparency report says: It wants to be a platform ‘that people trust and on which they can express themselves freely.‘
In her assessment of her former employer, Ms Haugen was damning ‘There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook,’ she said. ‘Facebook over and over again chose to optimise for its own interests, like making more money.’
The Global Perspective
The same disconcerting, problematic dynamics debated in the Global North are at play at the margins in the Global South and ‘there is an urgent need for new circuits of ethical engagement beyond and outside regulation, which is often too late to the party and does little other than retrospectively charge fines after the damage is done. We need to work harder to bring more perspectives of power and exclusion into the broader discourse on technology and development. Critical, engaged scholarship is part of the puzzle, and we see receptivity in industry, policy, and research, but that job is just beginning. Without the kinds of critiques of the global digital platforms found within this volume, we risk standing aside as the digital extractive industries exert power in this century much as the physical extractive industries did in the last one.’ (Jonathan Donner and Chris Locke, Digital Economies at Global Margins, 2019, p. 41)
The pressure is on the algorithms that decide all this – and which the Facebook has so far kept secret. So now it’s no longer just about what the data engine blocks, but also what it amplifies and how.
Malte Spitz of the Society for Civil Liberties (Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte e.V.), who also sits on the Green Party’s council at the federal level, demands, ‘Regulators, civil society, journalists and researchers must have access to the corporation’s findings on how its algorithms can work, amplify hate speech and make people addicted.’
Konstantin von Notz, a member of parliament for the Greens, states: ‘We want to know how the algorithms of platforms work and which contributions they amplify.’ For this, he says, there is a need for ‘perhaps not always full transparency, but effective control options,‘ in other words, ‘binding and effective’ digital supervision. ‘The more European the solution is, the better it works,’ von Notz says. ‘And Germany is certainly a crucial player there.’
Two EU legislative packages
One package is called the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and is intended to limit the market power of so-called gatekeepers – in other words, those online platforms that are economically strong and have a broad user base. The other is called the Digital Services Act (DSA) and is intended to better protect users’ fundamental rights and force platforms to be more transparent. Europeans hope the package will bring more peace to the digital public sphere and fair competition. It is the most far-reaching attempt at regulation to date.
What can’t be expected: that platforms will cure undesirable social developments or pacify controversies by suppressing them.
But the DSA could cause the algorithms of Facebook, YouTube and Co. to change more quickly than before through public scrutiny if fundamental rights are violated or criminal offences appear on the platforms, the corporations abuse their market power – or extreme positions are reinforced beyond measure.
In general a data justice framework needs to be created and as Linnet Taylor demands, ’the freedom to control the terms of one’s engagement with data markets is an essential component of any data justice framework because it underpins the power to understand and determine one’s own visibility, which also includes the freedom not to engage with the data (2017, p.9).
‘In times of technological dominance, democracy has to show that it is capable of acting and that politics can shape rules quickly,’ Paul Nemitz of the EU Commission hopes that the rules will be adopted quickly and come into force without long transition periods. After all, Brussels knows exactly how powerfully lobbyists can counter. All the more reason for Nemitz, a member of the SPD, to hope that Germany could be a driving force in Europe to prevent this from happening.
None of this true, Mr. Zuckerberg?
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is acting – especially after the revelations of his former employee Haugen – as if none of this could be true: Profit is not more important to the company than the well-being of its users. That’s why the company employs experts to conduct scientific research on the network and thousands of people to filter hate, says Zuckerberg – without commenting on Haugen’s specific accusations.
*Parts of this post were adapted and translated from ‘Die Macht bröckelt’ published in the German weekly paper ‘Die Zeit’* No 42, from 14.10.2021, p.23 ff. by Buchter, Heike & Hamann, Götz & Tönnesmann, Jens
’Die Zeit’ is a weekly German paper https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_Zeit
References and Links
- BBC: Apparently, it’s the next big thing. What is the metaverse?, 19.10.2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-58749529
- BBC Newsnight: How do we solve digital inequality, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mk25
- hateaid https://hateaid.org
- Frances Haugen in YouTube
- Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte, https://freiheitsrechte.org
The Society for Civil Liberties (Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte e.V.) fights for fundamental and human rights by legal means. We want to fight for fundamental decisions that make German and European law more humane and just.
- Taylor, Linnet 2017: What is data justice? The case for connecting digital rights and freedoms globally, Big Data & Society July–December 2017: 1–14, DOI: 10.1177/2053951717736335 journals.sagepub.com/home/bds
- Jonathan Donner and Chris Locke, p. 41in Graham, M. (ed.) 2019: Digital Economies at Global Margins (Links to an external site.). Ottawa, ON/Boston, MA: IDRC/MIT Press.
- Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/10/04/zuckerbergs-apologies-have-been-staple-facebook-scandals-now-company-offers-defiance/
- Wall Street Journal