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Our Most Important Democratic Discussion is Controlled By Silicon Valley

New report on our use of Facebook groups in Denmark is not problematised in the media, so I guess it’s okay?

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Once upon a time, local debate took place in town halls or local media run by Danish values. Today, the most important democratic debate of our time takes place in groups on the commercial American platform, Facebook. New report maps how active Danes are in Facebook groups and concludes that these ‘digital town halls, like historic town halls, are today forums for public assembly and conversation under voluntary popular ownership,’

Denmark’s digital town halls,’ (only in Danish) published mid April 2022, from Analyse og Tal in collaboration with Trygfonden, is full of interesting conclusions, for example:

  • Among the largest Facebook groups are the city groups. They act as bulletin boards with news, ideas and advice, searches, concerns, debates, gossip, policies and events related to the city or region. They provide answers to everything and are often the first place to read about local events.
  • When the debate in Facebook groups is moderated by ordinary citizens, the tone is less harsh and only just under two percent of comments contain attacks, while the figure in the media and politicians’ comment tracks is five and eight percent respectively.
  • There are many large ‘diagnosis communities’ where knowledge and recommendations are exchanged on mental or somatic issues, such as whether people have experienced side effects from medication. There are also many groups run by patient associations and groups for relatives, people in grief and people affected by loneliness, anxiety or addiction.
  • Islam, refugees, immigrants and crime are the topics debated most fiercely in the groups. The royal family, art and culture are debated with the most recognition.

The problem with the coverage of the report is that the Danish news media do not problematise our use of Facebook. Well the usual criticism that the tone can be so harsh that some people avoid participation. But there are plenty of other reasons:

  • The report itself points out that young people are no longer on Facebook, so there is a bias.
  • If you want to participate in the local debate today, you are forced to be on Facebook.
  • Our local debates are driven by Silicon Valley values which an achievement culture, with likes and perpetual competition, which are negatively affecting young people’s mental health.
  • The report also points out that Danes share a lot of sensitive personal data on the platform. Our democratic debate is used by Facebook to detail profile citizens and micro-target advertising and political messages to us depending on who pays the highest price. An undemocratic infrastructure that also decides what we can say and who can join and then openly promotes content generating the most clicks (money), even if it might be fake.

Failure upon Failure
The media fails when it fails to cover the above angles. They also fail when they do not try to create debate on their own platforms. For some years, one media house Berlingske Media tried in vain to digitise the local debate with Today it is technically easier, and a small country like Denmark should be able to create a Danish or European platform for political debate.

Organisations working with diseases and other sensitive issues fail, when they use Facebook rather than, say, Danish for professional associations, where data is not misused.

And politicians are failing because they fool us into thinking, they can regulate social media. They constantly criticise it and at the same thime they are addictid to the platforms themselves.

It is encouraging in itself that Danes participate so actively in democracy, as the report shows. It covers 5249 digital civic groups, some 15,000 volunteer administrators with more than 20 million memberships. And Facebook has shown us that there is a huge need for digital town halls.

But if there is no constant critical media coverage of our overuse of Facebook, politicians will not be forced to act and awareness of the pitfalls among Danes will not increase. Then we just carry on thinking that when everyone else is doing it, it’s probably okay.

Translated with (free version) and first published in Danish in the daily Politiken.

Picture from the report: