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Can Social Media Regain Their Status as Democratic Players?

Social media platforms have done pretty much what democratic governments have asked them to do. But between 2011, where they praised for their democratic role, and now they have helped build up people like Putin and Trump – and today we have new players.

Mainstream social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, Twitter, Youtube and TikTok have been labelled undemocratic in recent years. Accused of misusing personal data, exploiting their monopoly status, living in tax havens and, not least, profiting from personal data and peoples’ privacy. They undoubtedly helped build Putin into what he is today, just as they helped Trump to power by ignoring armies of fake users spreading and targeting fake news.

With the invasion of Ukraine, social media got an opportunity to regain some of the status it gained in 2011 with the Arab Spring, when it was no longer just publicist media but ordinary people and activists, who suddenly had access to broadcast their cause to the world. Therefore, social media was perceived as democratising.

But how are they doing now?

The major social media platforms have shut down the state-owned Russian services, RT television and its video channel Ruptly, which is based in Berlin. Only Elon Musk refuses to block Russian state media on his Starlink satellite, which he has made available to Ukraine, but as he writes on Twitter he is a free speech absolutist.

The platforms have also ramped up content moderation to further weed out misinformation, taking sides and prioritising moderation over free speech, which has been their argument for years to preserve the status quo.

Several have also stopped their revenue-generating activities in Russia.

Now, we see these platforms with massive amounts of information from civil Ukrainians and democratic media, and a digitally isolated Russia. This may be the first time ever, that we can follow a conflict of this magnitude unfolding in real time on social media. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is mastering them to top marks He went from being an actor to becoming president in 2019 precisely due to his masterful use of social media. These days we see him in new selfie videos every other moment on all the social media platforms, talking to the world both in his own language and in English.

Russian Ruptly most Viewed
So, the social media platforms have done pretty much what democratic governments have asked them to do. Despite this, they are struggling to regain their status as democratic players. That’s because, over the years, they have given Putin and other dictators tailwind and have themselves made a lot of money from the manipulation. This cannot be wiped away. For example, the most viewed ‘news channel’ on Youtube in 2020 was precisely the state-owned Russian video service Ruptly.

And if the platforms have indeed now blocked Ruptly for democratic reasons and not to prevent bad PR, why don’t they do the same in other dictatorship states like Syria, as Marietje Schaake writes in The Financial Times.

Besides, any commercial giant will prioritise profit as opposed to some publicist media, and also the platforms’ business models prevent them from being genuinely transparent; their algorithms are their trade secrets.

Finally, unlike in 2011, today there are numerous alternatives to the mainstream social media platforms, and they are gaining ground in times of crisis. One of them is Telegram, an app similar to Facebook Messenger, but where you can read news in open forums as well as communicate privately. No third parties get access to data (there are no ads) and you can set your messages to self-destruct. Telegram encrypts messages so that even Telegram does not have access to them and cannot pass them on to, for example, the Russian state. For this very reason, Telegram is a thorn in the side of Putin, who has tried in the past to access data and block the service. Paradoxically, Telegram, based in Dubai, is owned by two wealthy Russian brothers.

This column was published first in Danish in the Danish daily Politiken

Also read this, Everything platforms know about the war but won’t tell us, a clever interview about how much we could learn from the content that is removed from social media, if just social media would share it with researchers. “The single biggest blind spot in policies around removed content is that there are no industry-wide norms or regulatory requirements for archiving or finding ways to share it with select researchers after it’s removed.”

Picture is from Telegram, where the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has a lot of followers

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