Friday, 29 January 2016

What happens when Facebook unfriends you?

Few countries have a more complicated relationship with free speech than Germany. Although it’s certainly come a long way from the dark days of the mid-twentieth century, there’s still plenty of things you can’t talk about in Deutschland.

But when a handful of stories eventually found their way into German media about hundreds of migrants sexually assaulting German women in Cologne during the New Year’s celebrations, it was the lack of free speech that angered many citizens.

I say “eventually” because the mainstream media refused to report the alleged crimes for three days until alternative media outlets began to do so. The German and European press has censored news about migrants for years, so the silence wasn’t too much of a surprise.

Instead it is the wider social context that makes this particular episode stand out. Because for the past few months, Berlin has been asking Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to censor anti-refugee “hate speech” and who knows what else.

Then last week, Facebook announced it has created a dedicated, site-wide project to do precisely this. The creepily Orwellian-named Online Civil Courage Initiative (OCCI) will be based in Berlin. At the official launch, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says the best cure for bad ideas is good ideas, which would be a great sentiment if it didn’t come from someone who represented a company more insidiously allergic to privacy than the NSA. (I’m going to go ahead and protect myself by saying that’s a joke).

But first, to understand why Germany co-opted Facebook, or how Facebook tricked Berlin – depending on who’s side you’re on – a tiny bit of multiculturalist history is needed. Don’t worry, it’s not long.


Germany is dying. Its demography is aging and Germans aren’t breeding anywhere near the required replacement rate, let alone a rate suitable for growth. According to official statistics, Germany’s 81 million people will drop to between 68 and 73 million people by 2060, in a low or high immigration scenario respectively. Compounding the demographic problem, Germany’s economy requires high numbers of both producers and consumers to remain strong.

Both factors were likely behind Berlin’s controversial plan to admit hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015. Some analysts say this explanation borders on conspiracy theory, but whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel is playing for 50 years of guaranteed voters or it’s all a rational plan to boost Germany’s demography, the social effect on Germany has been the same – negative.

Europe, and especially Germany, operates a totally different multiculturalism to the United States. In Europe, immigrants and refugees are encouraged to transplant their cultures into an adopted country and there is no official policy to cajole new arrivals to integrate. Even German citizens don’t encourage immigrant integration, preferring to “respect” the foreign culture with complete tolerance.

In Germany, becoming “German” isn’t possible by adopting the cultural norms anyway. The key is heredity. Someone born in France to German parents is a German. And someone born in China to German parents is a German. But if a Syrian is born in Germany, that person is still a Syrian and will always be. In fact, many Germans would look at you sideways if you suggested they encourage the Syrian to become German. In the German worldview, it simply isn’t possible.

However, the entire American project pivots on the idea that anyone can become American, regardless of ethnicity. Often first generation immigrants will respond to social pressures and quickly “act American”. Multiculturalism in the US expects a high level of cultural homogeneity. Ethnic concentrations in many US cities are tolerated, so long as a basic of American-ness is followed.


While this isn’t an exhaustive catalogue of Germany’s problems, it helps explain why the German media decided not to report on the alleged sexual assaults in Cologne. The perpetrators were all described as “Arab or North African” and the media is well aware of the contradiction. Berlin’s fear is that its multiculturalism expects amiable ethnic segregation so any exacerbation of this segregation, which would scuttle the economic benefits of the immigrants, should be avoided.

And since the only way of accurately understanding the media’s position in society is to see it as an arm of the state, with journalists as civil servants, the goal of Berlin becomes the goal of the media: avoid stirring ethnic discontent among German citizens. By Berlin’s calculation, the success of its strategy is the difference between life and death for the German state.

Regardless of the correct reason, Germany is struggling with an unassimilable population numbering in the millions that threaten to drastically alter its society. This is the context of Berlin’s decision to pressure Facebook into actively policing the way its users express their thoughts and beliefs.

Although there might be a description of hate speech we can agree upon in a democratic society, I don’t think giving a corporation the power to decide what constitutes hate speech is a good idea. With matters of such gravity, being concerned about where the lines are drawn should be outweighed by who draws the lines.


But the issue breaks down further into some nasty implications. It certainly is accurate to classify Facebook as a private corporation, but that classification doesn’t quite explain what it is. After all, a corporation is simply a group of people working towards a common cause.

Being a private corporation makes Facebook different to other types of corporations, such as government and NGOs. And in the German case, the fact that people willingly supply Facebook with their personal data compounds the complexity of exactly whose freedom of speech is actually in question. Yet at bottom, what is happening in Germany is an abuse of power. And I do mean real power.

Because from the perspective of a journalist, the bit that really gets me is the “media” label these private organisations such as Facebook and Twitter apply to themselves. The term “social media” has entered the lexicon of all developed societies and is widely considered to be the next iteration of traditional media. This is the illusion Facebook is using to enrich itself.

If these companies truly consider themselves “media”, then there are certain societal expectations that come with that role. Being part of a media organisation is a job with clear and important responsibilities. This isn’t aggrandising a journalist’s role, it is simply a reflection of the fact that their fundamental job is to report accurately. Does this always happen? Of course not. But a self-correcting philosophy and an explicit function as an arm of the state generally keeps journalists honest.

But responsibility is synonymous with power. A person can’t be responsible for something without the ability to affect it. What was the point of Berlin asking Facebook to censor its users’ free speech if the German government didn’t think the company had both the power and responsibility? Yet for a ‘media’ outlet to arbitrarily decide both what constitutes hate speech and then attempt to “gag at the source” is by definition a failure of responsibility, and therefore an abuse of power.

Now, these dark implications for the future of freedom could all be avoided if Facebook, Twitter, et al admit they are not media at all. They might describe themselves as private corporations gathering people’s digital data in order to sell advertising. But that pesky label ‘media’ has drummed into our collective brains that Facebook is the natural offspring of traditional media. This is the central lie in what is occurring in Germany and across the world.


What’s worse is that traditional media are helping the social ‘media’ hangman tie the noose that will kill it. Facebook and other social ‘media’ are the direct cause of traditional media losing traffic and revenue online. Facebook hosts content from traditional media, paying lip service to the items journalists create. And traditional media outlets think allowing Facebook to display its content is a good thing! Madness.

Facebook and other social “media” no longer rely on real, flesh-and-blood human minds to filter the words it considers hate speech. Instead, Facebook uses computer algorithms to search for keywords, and algorithms to delete or manipulate this speech. These are not the actions of a media organisation, they are the actions of a factory creating a product.

But Facebook doesn’t want to stop describing itself as ‘media’ from its description because the nomenclature offers the company an aura of importance and legitimacy it wouldn’t have if it were merely considered a humble website. So it can get away with almost anything by claiming the same rights and responsibilities usually apportioned only to traditional media.

Perhaps we’re in need of a conversation about whether a social network is media. Otherwise these attacks on freedom of speech will only get worse. Our ancestors fought for these rights, which are not permanent, and could disappear under cover of “prudent political policy.” Maybe it’s a poetic irony all this is occurring in Germany after all.

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