Against a Digital Dictatorship: “Free Information is the Crude Oil of a Living Democracy”

It’s a paradox: Never before has it been so easy to express one’s opinion thanks to countless platforms and channels. But never before have so few people decided on the rules of these platforms. Never before has the free formation of opinion, which is so crucial for our democracies, been in such danger. And never before have the signs of recognising this been so obvious. And yet we do nothing. How can this be? It is time for an angry outcry. We must act!

Yet what I write is banal, not very original or surprising. But still we do nothing. Moreover, what I write is superficial and pointed here and there – but differentiation no longer helps.

Collage with Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood/1098515

What is the problem?

Three things are happening in parallel these days:

First, Elon Musk demonstrates what happens when a person with a lot of money (or other instruments of power) intends to change a debate platform to his liking. Whether he buys (or has bought) Twitter, whether he joins its supervisory board (or – as he has – rejects it) is almost irrelevant: what Musk is up to these days shows us how susceptible the organisational structures of these platforms are to outside influence. According to the motto: What I don’t like, I will change. What contradicts my understanding of free debate, I will change – regardless of whether a social consensus would see it quite differently.

It’s not just about Twitter. The same goes for Meta (with Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and significant market shares in VR platforms), for Google, Amazon, Spotify, LinkedIn, Snapchat and TikTok: International corporations committed exclusively to one purpose – making as much profit as possible – are increasingly determining the formation of opinion, at least in our “Western” democracies.

Secondly, we are learning these days what dependence means: Germany knew that it was dependent on Russian oil and gas supplies. Now it is trying to free itself from this one-sided dependence. And the public discourse clearly marks: dependence on one supplier for vital goods is dangerous, limits a state’s ability to act.

But what about the intangible good of independent information? Are we not also here aware of our dependence on a few actors – in this case not states, but platforms? Nevertheless, we accept it for the time being. Yet free information is the crude oil of a living democracy.

Thirdly, the war in Ukraine shows us exactly that: how decisive, how vital independent information is. In this context, however, the Meta group even manages to gain ground in the public perception: Russia banned Facebook and Instagram as “extremist organisations”. The free world cheered and patted Marc Zuckerberg on the back for taking the “right” side (for example, here). Meta even decided to allow calls for violence against Vladimir Putin and Russian soldiers, even death threats, in some countries. If this decision had gone the other way, Meta would have allowed death threats against the Ukrainian president – the worldwide outcry would have been huge. Yes, Meta acted morally right in this case, in my view.

The striking thing is that Meta alone decides which “side” it will take. In this case, “alone” means without any public oversight. Without any serious consultation with the public (the Facebook Oversight Board is just window dressing with no binding effect).

“Alone” means that socially conspicuous ex-teens like Elon Musk or Marc Zuckerberg decide how opinions are formed in the Western world. Or Chinese oligarchs (at TikTok), who pretend to be independent at the beck and call of the regime in Beijing, but cower as soon as the state and party apparatus flinches.

There are so many clear signs of what is happening: besides Ukraine or what happened on Twitter, the Cambridge Analytica scandal with its massive influence on the US election campaign or Brexit. Most recently, Russia’s massive campaign to track down TikTok creators and expose millions of users to Moscow’s propaganda.

What does that mean?

We are only a few steps away from alternative media, alongside the big platforms, no longer reaching their audience, from Facebook, TikTok & Co. dominating our opinion formation. We are only a few steps away from individuals deciding in a non-transparent way what we are allowed to read and thus know, supported by algorithms, the majority of which are programmed by white, well-off men (the bias of algorithms is another complex issue that will not be discussed in detail here).

But do we really want to leave it up to white, socially conspicuous men, Chinese dictators and biased algorithms to decide what we think? Who duplicate millions of times over what polarises and divides society? Who do everything they can to dominate global opinion because it makes their coffers ring?

“Digital dictatorship” seems a bit far-fetched as the devil on the wall. But if a “dictatorship” is understood as a form of rule characterised by a single ruling person, the dictator, or a ruling group of people (e.g. party, military junta, family or a group or person running a monopolistic platform) with far-reaching to unlimited political power, then we are not that far off. What if Meta had sided with Putin? What if a megalomaniac American president equalised the corporations in his country and thus opinion? I can think of at least one candidate I would trust to do that.

What was that again about diversity of opinion?

Why have we in Germany afforded ourselves a complicated media system with numerous checks and balances? Public broadcasting with overseeing councils, decidedly non-governmental, federally organised and financed by a “contribution” – not a tax? With media boards that supervise private broadcasting? A system that has found models in many of our neighbouring countries after World War II? Why, for example, are publishing houses organised on an externally plural basis („außenplural“), why is the Federal Cartel Office responsible for merger control in the media sector with special competence and stricter rules than for purely commercial enterprises?

Because we were convinced that freedom of expression must be protected. Because we were convinced that not too much power of opinion should be concentrated in the hands of a few. Does that only apply in the analogue and linear world, to printed newspapers and broadcasting via antenna? How can it be that we prohibit takeovers in the publishing sector while international corporations are blithely carving out monopolies of opinion? Meta would presumably have been broken up in Germany if it had had to obey the rules of linear media corporations.

Is digital diversity of opinion less valuable than linear diversity? Is it not just as worthy of protection? Why are we throwing away in the digital world the values we defend in the linear media world?

And what do we do?

We shrug our shoulders, continue to use the family, kindergarten and school WhatsApp groups (“Signal is missing three members”), share holiday pictures with grandpa and grandma on Facebook and sun ourselves on Instagram. Our children use TikTok, the most underestimated platform (because it is largely unknown to parents), where they mainly see Corona criticism, war propaganda and false ideals of beauty.

“Burying our heads in the sand“ in the digital world means hiding our heads lowered behind our mobile phone screens. Instead of laughing with our children, we spend hours beaming our usage data to Silicon Valley. Instead of standing up and taking action, we are the worst possible role model for reflective media use behaviour, individually and socially.

Because those who shape policy and media conveniently refer to the “Too Big To Fail” nonsense. Does anyone remember Myspace? It no longer exists. Neither does the Roman Empire, for that matter. Platforms can also go out of business if their users run away. But we are hardly doing anything to weaken the big platforms today, on the contrary.

We deal with “redirection strategies”, i.e. first publishers and broadcasters publish their precious content on Facebook, Youtube, TikTok & Co. and then try to guide users back to media libraries and their own offerings. The child is so deep in the well that we would not reach some users any other way.

But what we are actually doing: With our content we continue to strengthen those who despise our values. With explanatory videos, balanced discussion and constructive journalism, we strengthen those corporations that confuse, polarise and destroy society. As long as people find our offerings on polarising, anti-democratic platforms, they will continue to use them.

We media are pocketing the funding that Google’s “Digital News Initiative” and the “Facebook Journalism Programme” are luring us with. Money that the platforms have also earned because they continually weaken the traditional media. These alleged support programmes are unsurpassable in terms of cynicism: Those who destroy classical media generously grant life-extending financial injections. And those who point to quotes from people like Nick Clegg, the “President for Global Affairs” at Meta, who sympathetically and differentiatedly tries to make his company seem friendlier, be told: this is all pretence, at most good-will, but without any resilient basis for his company not taking the “other” side when push comes to shove. Marc Zuckerberg has taken every precaution to ensure that his descendants also call the shots in the company – and not a “President Of Global Affairs” or an “Oversight Board”. They all act only at Zuckerberg’s mercy.

What do we have to do?

We – every single one of us – need to opt out of WhatsApp today and use alternatives.

We need to log off Facebook and Instagram and convince our children to turn their backs on TikTok.

We need to challenge the silent power of Spotify over the music we love and the word in podcasts and strengthen alternatives.

We have to start now, before it is too late.

We have to weaken the existing platforms by gradually not publishing our content there.

We need to strengthen alternative platforms: they do exist! For example, the public service media libraries, or those of the private broadcasters who are finally talking about cooperation! Or internet niches like piqed, DuckDuckGo, Qwant (owned by Springer) – or the products of the Mozilla Foundation.

This also means: We have to develop alternative financing models – payment and advertising – for media and the creator economy. Because only if an alternative ecosystem also secures income will it be strong enough to exist.

If we don’t start building an alternative platform system, there will be no digital places where we can meet instead of Facebook, Youtube and TikTok. But we need these places, at the latest when media policy restricts the big platforms.

This text is not the right place to design the structure of these alternative platforms (that’s what initiatives like beyondplatforms are dealing with.) But we need to start with it, get into the conversation, and quickly build up, try out, gain experience.

We need to act together – public and private broadcasters, newspaper and magazine publishers as well as those who produce digital quality content (whether we call them content creators or journalists). While public broadcasters and publishers fight their perpetual feud over online content and weaken each other, platforms are passing them by as laughing third parties.

We need to reform our media policy and make it capable of action: Often, in media federalism, we are not even able to act nationally (see the dispute over the broadcasting fee or the anachronistic rules of media supervision). We limit ourselves to regulating one part of the opinion machine – namely the one that is tangible in Germany. In doing so, we put publishers and broadcasters in Germany at a disadvantage compared to international platforms that, on the other hand, distribute content quasi unregulated.

Media policy must ensure diversity of opinion – for example, by publishing algorithms and having democratically legitimised bodies oversee the content of the platforms. Media policy probably also has to unbundle (i.e. expropriate) if a platform concentrates too much opinion power on itself in an audience segment. It must block access if punishable content is not deleted (Telegram just got its act together).

We see day after day how influential and powerful the big platforms are. It is time to act, time to defend diversity of opinion and thus our democracies and to decisively push back the influence of the big platforms.

Looking back, history always asks: And what did you do? We cannot say that we did not know how great the danger to our democracies is. If the big platforms continue to grow stronger – and that is undoubtedly their goal! -then the path to digital dictatorship is not far away.