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Social media are undemocratic and that is a problem

01 July 2024

In ‘Liekuut’, which is the Groningen dialect for straight ahead or straightforward, we regularly share the perspective of one of our academics on a topical issue. In this way, we show how UG researchers are contributing to the societal debate.

Ever since the first social media and online communication structures emerged, discussions have been ongoing about privacy, disinformation, and abuse. This spring, the European Union has approved two privacy laws, the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA). The first one mainly revolves around protecting users and moderation, whereas the latter is about competition between media companies. According to Dr Titus Stahl, political philosopher, this form of legislative regulation does not suffice, because the regulation of commercial companies does not address social media’s undemocratic component.

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Dr. Titus Stahl

Foreign companies decide how we communicate with and about each other, and we as citizens have little influence on how their platforms are designed and moderated. In addition, these companies have large amounts of data at their disposal and, at the moment, we cannot check what happens with this data. And that is a problem.

Laws are inadequate

‘Privacy laws such as the GDPR ensure that people have to give their permission for the use and storage of their personal details. The legislator assumes that there will be no problems if this permission has been given voluntarily. So, you give permission via a user agreement or by accepting cookies and that is that. But that doesn’t make sense, of course. The parties are not equal because the knowledge has been unevenly distributed: companies know what happens to the data, but it’s unrealistic to think that users are able to understand the consequences. Besides that, technology is progressing much quicker than a legislator can write laws. Five years ago, for example, artificial intelligence wasn’t an issue yet. That goes to show that you can never predict what your data will ultimately be used for.’

Undemocratic communication structures

‘These laws also don’t address the undesirable situation that companies own entire communication structures of the society. These structures are ultimately further developed to serve their own objectives, which is profit maximization. The commercial objectives of the platforms benefit from a lot of interaction between their users. However, a nuanced story will generate a lot less interaction than a strongly-worded or provocative post. In other words, the way in which algorithms promote or hide posts determines the public debate. The platforms’ defence is that they have to make money because they are a company, whether you like it or not. And users give their consent that they voluntarily use their services. But there is no real alternative. You want to be on those platforms that everyone is on. You want to be able to reach your friends and acquaintances. And that is how we remain dependent on those companies.’

Control to the users

‘If we take the value of democratic self-determination seriously, we can see how undesirable this situation is. We are now looking for solutions at the individual user level by emphasizing freedom of choice and permission statements. However, in practice, this choice is limited to a dozen big platforms that are owned by companies abroad. In addition, you are almost forced to create an account on the platform that the majority of people are on. There should at least be alternatives that safeguard democratic values and where people have real influence on how the platform handles their information and how the algorithms work. Something like a public broadcast model comes to mind. You could also demand consultative participation of users on how algorithms work and what information is collected. This will be a long-term project, one in which public organizations and the government have an important role to play. The free market itself is not going to solve it.’

Last modified:28 June 2024 11.56 a.m.
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