Most media are maliciously fraudulent

University of Cologne

Social media have gained in importance, especially in pandemic times with lockdowns and contact restrictions. But they also come under criticism again and again, for example when fake news and hateful messages are spread via the platforms. Society and legislators are not faced with an easy task: prevent agitation and manipulation, preserve freedom of expression.

By Sarah Brender


For many people, having to use the mobile phone every day and informing them about the latest news, for example via Twitter, is part of their daily routine. Large communication platforms and social networks such as Facebook, Instagram or TikTok influence our habits, our vacation plans - and last but not least, the formation of political opinions. The fact that this also harbors dangers has come more and more into the public eye in recent years. Science is therefore increasingly concerned with the darker sides of social media, because its potential for manipulation, political mobilization or influencing public debates is not limited to virtual space, but has tangible effects in the »real world«.

A particularly drastic example of this is the use of Twitter as a mouthpiece by the former US President Donald Trump, who, among other things, repeatedly claimed via his wide-reaching account with over 88 million followers that the election had been "stolen" from him. Following the well-known riots in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., the social media account @realdonaldtrump was blocked by Twitter, justified by "the risk of further incitement to violence."

High numbers of followers can be deceiving

Anyone who has used social media before knows that followers are the most important currency on these platforms. "A high number of followers means that the station is considered popular and trustworthy and helps spread the word," says Dr. Bruno Castanho Silva, postdoc at the Cologne Center for Comparative Politics (CCCP).

The problem with this: so-called platform manipulation. According to the definition of Twitter, it occurs "when Twitter is used for mass actions or aggressive or fraudulent activities that mislead others and / or impair their use of the platform". Among other things, the popularity of accounts or campaigns can be artificially influenced by the use of fake or automated accounts that track and promote content. A quick look at Google under the search terms “buy followers” ​​shows how easy it is to cheat: There are countless websites that promise “fake followers” ​​for the various social media platforms for little money.

Not only users still see high numbers of followers as a supposed sign of trustworthiness - social media algorithms also rate accounts with high numbers of followers as more relevant. This exacerbates the distorting effect of the manipulation. Aside from falsified numbers, for example through bought followers, bots can also duplicate opinions. A bot is a computer program that largely automatically processes repetitive tasks. Programs that are supposed to imitate human communication in social networks are called social bots. Whether a bot or a person posts a post is not necessarily obvious at first glance. To push your own opinion and a mass of like-minded people

To pretend, bots for influencing opinion are therefore also of interest to politicians. Professor Dr. Karl-Nikolaus Peifer emphasizes that this type of platform manipulation is in the legal gray area. The lawyer and director of the Institute for Media Law and Communication Law says that the use of bots is not legally prohibited, but recently there has been a right to demand labeling for automated communication: “People want to know whether they are being informed by humans or by machines. And whether relevance actually exists through human reactions or is only faked by machines. "

Politicians from far-right parties benefited from bots

In a joint study with Professor Dr. Sven-Oliver Proksch from the Chair of European Politics, Bruno Castanho Silva stated that in 2018 politicians from right-wing extremist and right-wing populist parties were the greatest beneficiaries of bots. The two researchers recorded tweets of all national politicians in the EU in real time and used a deletion of numerous bots, which was not announced by Twitter, to determine which politicians would benefit the most. For example, politicians from the Dutch PVV party lost almost two percent of their followers within a few days due to the deletion. Proksch says: "Our results show that the Twitter popularity of right-wing extremist parties should be viewed with skepticism."

Twitter claims to have worked continuously to track down malicious bots and render them harmless - with stricter measures against misinformation, especially during the current COVID-19 crisis. Nonetheless, most of the platform's efforts are not very transparent. "It is impossible to estimate how widespread the problem of bots will be at a certain point in time," says Castanho Silva.

In its platform manipulation and spam policy of September 2020, Twitter names the possibility of reporting tweets or accounts that violate the policy and, for example, spread spam or generate spurious interactions that are intended to make accounts or content appear more popular or active than they actually are .

Freedom of expression versus hatred and agitation

In addition to the manipulation of opinion on the platforms by bots, hatred and agitation are also a recurring problem on social media channels. Journalists, politicians and network activists have criticized a trend towards escalation and polarization in debates, as particularly acute content is often shared and liked on Facebook and Twitter. For example, the Green politician Robert Habeck signed off from Twitter and Facebook and said that Twitter was "a very tough medium where people talk in divisive and polarizing ways."

In exceptional cases, blockages are indispensable in order to stop hate messages and campaigns of lies, argues the media culture scientist Professor Dr. Stephan Packard. But basically it is a balancing act that cannot be mastered by private service providers, but only by lawmakers. »If platforms exclude certain users, content or uses in whole or in part, they prevent parts of a responsible participation in democracy. If, on the other hand, they allow harmful speech, such as propagandistic hate speech or campaigns of lies, it can hardly be dealt with in any other way, ”says Packard, describing the dilemma.

So in many cases there can be no simple solutions. Discussions about the legality of bans, as in the case of the social media profiles of the former US president, are inevitable. In addition, it is still unclear what the legal framework for such account blocks could look like.

International corporations, national law

The fact that Trump's freedom of expression was impaired by the blocking of his accounts does not play a role in the USA. There, the restriction of freedom of expression is legally problematic only if it is implemented by the state, but not if private companies are responsible for it. The lawyer Peifer makes it clear: “It would be different in Germany. Here, too, companies must pay attention to fundamental rights. The provider's contractual conditions must comply with the principle of freedom of expression. «For this reason, for example, the company Facebook had to re-enable expressions on user profiles that had already been blocked several times.

The media lawyer also points to questions that are still unresolved from a legal point of view, which would first have to be discussed socio-politically: Should companies be allowed to make decisions that are of great importance for communication - whether they are closures or openings? Should platform operators also have to follow standards of conduct that apply to professional journalism? So should guarantee of diversity, research obligations, moderation requirements and complaint mechanisms also apply to social media?

What are the solutions?

Stephan Packard proposes a solution from the perspective of media culture studies: "Precisely because these questions are as difficult as they are urgent, they have to be discussed in public debate and decided by political consensus." Packard also advocates guidelines for platforms that can be implemented as clearly as possible. In case of doubt, freedom should be given more weight than its restriction, but should still be able to ward off the worst abuse.

"Such rules are urgently needed," says Packard. Because the responsibility of social media, which is in the hands of private providers, is currently too great. The task should not be passed on to them: "Private entrepreneurs have no competence to interfere with fundamental rights, and they shouldn't have to."

Packard is therefore proposing to politicians the introduction of an alternative in terms of social media: "Sooner or later, there will be a need for a public alternative to private network operators, as public service broadcasting has been successfully demonstrating for radio and television for decades." by a comparable institution, or by promoting decentralized communication formats, as we know them from the e-mail system and which, according to Packard, are also possible for social networks: “One of the fundamental functional principles of the Internet is decentralization. With Facebook & Co. we have got used to privately regulated and controlled platforms instead. But social media are also possible on a decentralized basis: first attempts such as Diaspora and Mastodon prove that. “Now it is a matter of developing it further and, above all, creating the legal and practical framework conditions to expand its use.