Geopolitics

Is Facebook A Threat To Democracy, Or Just A Platform?

The questions continue to pile up around the U.S. social media giant's role in undermining public discourse and the proper functioning of society.

Walking the fine line of curbing the spread of violence and misinformation

Facebook announced this week it would be banning all pages, groups, and Instagram accounts linked to the conspiracy theory movement "QAnon." After months of criticism for delayed content moderation and removal, QAnon was labeled as a "militarized social movement," which is prohibited under its current rules, according to a Facebook spokesperson. It's just the latest attempt for the social media giant to walk the fine line of curbing the spread of violence and misinformation across the platform, while being careful not to slow down the constant flow of interactions that drives its billion-dollar business.

While it's a step in the right direction, Facebook has allowed to many of these fringe movement pages and groups to multiply, with many expanding exponentially during the pandemic. Indeed, like COVID-19 itself, controlling the ill effects of the social media is an always morphing global plague. And most agree that Facebook, estimated to have been used by 28% of the global population, still hasn't had a true reckoning with the ways in which it is becoming a tool to undermine democratic systems — both by opponents and governments themselves.

Targeted in India: In what is often referred to as the world's "biggest democracy," an Indian journalist and editor for a popular Jammu-based newspaper State Times, Tsewang Rigzin was arrested early last month. The charges had nothing to do with anything he'd written or published in the paper, but simply for being an "administrator" of a Facebook group.

• Rigzin had established a Facebook group "Ladakh in the Media," which followed coverage of the Ladakh region of Kashmir, the long-disputed territory that has sparked tensions between India and Pakistan.

• As Rigzin later recounted to the Indian news website The Wire, another user had posted a comment that was deemed by the BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be "disobeying a public servant."

• Though Rigzin was released on bail later that same day, it speaks to a greater theme of Facebook being used around the world by governments or individuals to undermine elections in some cases and even democracy itself in others.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in Washington in July — Photo: Graeme Jennings/CNP/ZUMA

Rewind, context: In an 18-month period, the Brexit vote in the UK, the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, and the 2017 elections in France, it became clear that Facebook's algorithm and services were being manipulated for political ends, often (by not only) by Russia.

• In the United States, when Facebook, Twitter and Google were questioned on evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, some of the posts in question had reached more than 126 million users on Facebook, over 131,000 messages on Twitter and at least 1,000 videos over YouTube.

• In France, the run-up to the 2017 presidential election saw a barrage of fake news in the form of rumors, stories and even doctored videos against President Emmanuel Macron circulating on Facebook. According to Le Monde, some posts were shared more than 250,000 times. One manipulated video, seen more than 15 million times on Facebook, was revealed to have been filmed in Russia, not France.

• Russian interference has also been linked to Italy's 2018 parliamentary elections to benefit the election of Matteo Salvini as well as the Lega Nord and Five Star Movement (M5S) political parties. According to a report in Wired Italia, one of the main sources of M5S fake news was the Russian disinformation newspaper "Sputnik." An analysis of more than a million posts from over 98,000 Italian social media profiles by El Pais, revealed that the vast majority of xenophobic fake news came from Sputnik.

However, the problem isn't purely political interference from Russia or other foreign entities. Facebook's inability to curb the spread of misinformation on its own platform reaches farther. Like with the QAnon movement and other far-right and fringe groups that use the platform to spread their message and organize, Facebook has long come under fire for its inadequate moderation, content policies and removal.

• A recent study conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute found that less than 1% of the misinformation videos had been flagged for fake information or removed as per Facebook's content moderation policies.

• Researchers found coronavirus-related misinformation videos originating on YouTube spreading exponentially on Facebook, with some videos shared 20 million times on Facebook between October 2019 and January 2020. The reach of these posts across social media was higher than those of the five largest English-language news sources in the world.

So Zuck? Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has attributed the popularity of partisan posts to the inherent virality of provocative content, thanks to their ability to drive conversations and interaction. While conceding that Facebook, and big tech in general, needed a privacy update, he argued in a recent Axios interview that he didn't necessarily believe it was his problem to solve: "I have a little more confidence in democracy than that. And I hope my confidence isn't misplaced." We hope so too.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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