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Can the social media beast be tamed?

von Hein Matthias Kommentarbild App
Matthias von Hein
February 9, 2021

The internet giants that regulate our data and our attention breed a dangerous societal polarization. Today's Safer Internet Day is a symbolic start to combating it, but nowhere near enough, argues Matthias von Hein.

A woman scrolling on her smartphone
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

Videos, images and texts are are becoming more shocking and more extreme in their constant competition for our attention.

It's all too familiar: Just scan your social media timeline. And, when you have finally managed to tear your bloodshot eyes away from the screen, you might notice that another hour, or more, has somehow flashed by. Internet platforms feed on your time. That's their job. They eat it up and spit it out. And the digital data that is generated as a byproduct has helped to promote the big players in Silicon Valley into some of the most valuable corporations on the planet. Our addictive fishing for facts, our titillation, is their most reliable tool.

The wars being fought for control of the attention economy are rich in casualties. Among the collateral damage: huge and growing divisions in our societies. Alienated punters are left behind to struggle with their hatred, polarization, depression and misinformation. Many of them fall prey to rat catchers from across the political spectrum. After all, the artificial intelligence generated by supercomputers sets out to answer just one question: What captivates us? What captures our attention? What will not let us go? The answer: The thing that triggers the strongest emotions. And which feelings, which emotions, can most easily be stirred? Fear and anger. And lots of it.

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'Hate for profit' a successful business model

Enter the debunked conspiracy theories of those obsessed with chemtrails, and those convinced that Bill Gates is only supporting international vaccination campaigns because he really wants to implant chips in people's bodies and thus control the world. If the algorithms promoting such patently false drivel generate new content, then who cares whether or not it is verifiable? Who cares what impact it might have on "transparent" users? The only thing that counts to the beast is "TOS," time on site.

As digital efforts intensify to monetarize our attention, we as humans enter as a technology-driven downward spiral that reinforces extreme content. The moderate and boring "voice of reason" simply doesn't stand a chance against increasingly extreme false information. Activists have dubbed this business model "hate for profit." And even if only one in in a hundred viewers is susceptible: Well, Facebook has more than two billion users worldwide, with YouTube close behind.

DW reporter Matthias von Hein
DW reporter Matthias von Hein

There can in the meantime be no doubt that social media are increasingly taking a stranglehold over the central distribution of information that decides how we see and understand the world. And while on the one hand, unverified and extreme content is being flushed ever further from the fringes and ever deeper into the hearts of our societies, at the same time the curated and checked information traditionally provided by established media outlets are increasingly disappearing behind paywalls. Democracy is dependent on informed citizens, who have a shared foundation for discourse and discussion. It is unfortunately all too easy to imagine where a society of disinformed people who have no shared language is likely to end up.

In response to public pressure, Facebook, Google, Twitter and others have reluctantly agreed to tweak their operations and pay a handful of students to reactively remove the most egregious excesses and aberrations. But it's a drop in the ocean in the efforts to curb the social media giants, whose business takes place across the globe and in hundreds of languages. Meanwhile, the process of fact-checking is in essence restricted to just a few western languages. One example in which Facebook itself has admitted to a degree of culpability: the forced displacement of the Rohingya people from Myanmar in 2017. The social network had become such a promiscuous platform for hate speech and incitement to violence that, in 2018, a UN investigator described Facebook as a "monster." At Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, just as little will be known about content in other Asian and African languages as was the case concerning the Burmese-language content in 2017. The same would apply for YouTube and other competitors.

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Regulation necessary, like for all public utilities

This reactive response will remain problematic as long as companies continue to thrive by appealing without the least restraint to our lowest instincts in order to keep us on site. The internet giants have come to play such a central role in our societies that there are growing calls for them to be regulated in exactly the same way as electricity and water utilities. In terms of public health, water is centrally filtered before it goes into the national supply grids. 

Social network should be treated with just as much diligence. It's not a question of censorship. It's about skimming off some of the most extreme and hazardous content. And what, it must be asked, is wrong with promoting content that moves us forward – as individuals and as a society? One strategy might be to only issue licenses that stipulate: first people, then profits.  Our attention is a precious resource. Far too precious to be turned over unregulated to corporate interests. So: paying attention is of the utmost importance. Thank you for yours.

This article has been translated from German.