The Selfie Seen Round the World: Social Media and its Pervasive Role in Politics

Syrian refugee Anas Modamani—who posed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a 2015 photograph that went viral— has recently filed for an injunction that would obligate Facebook to remove any content connecting him to terrorism. His doing so raises interesting questions about the role of technology in politics and the responsibility of the media. The photograph in question, a cheerful selfie taken outside of the Berlin shelter where Modamani was living at the time, has become emblematic of Chancellor Merkel’s empathy toward refugees fleeing war-torn regions and her administration’s willingness to welcome over one million migrants and refugees into Germany in 2015. Yet, in the entropic ‘this is why we can’t have nice things’ tendency of the internet, the photo has been repeatedly and widely misappropriated by false news reports centred around terrorism, including posts about the December 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin and the February 2016 airport attack in Brussels. This libellous incident, beyond its harmful defamation of Modamani’s character, is part of a larger issue in Germany and worldwide: far-right, nationalistic politics gaining steam, bolstered in part by fake news and Big Data manipulation.

With elections looming in September, the Eurosceptic, populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has propelled itself onto the national stage. The party’s rapid rise since its inception in 2013 can be seen in large part as a backlash to Merkel’s immigration policies; in the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania election in September, the AfD capitalised on nationalist anxiety about immigration and pulled into second place – garnering nearly 21 per cent of votes – behind the centre-left Social Democrat party but ahead of Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats (CDU). Chillingly, the AfD has noted associations with the anti-immigration movement Pegida, whose rhetoric includes the Nazi-esque slogan ‘Luegenpresse’ (lying press).

Jason Howie

Image courtesy of Jason Howie, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Modamani’s lawsuit calls for Facebook to vigilantly seek out and remove fake news posts rather than its current system of waiting for users to flag violations of ‘community standards.’ Madonna’s lawyer, Chan-jo Jun, sees this case as an opportunity for the legal community ‘to curb fake news, at least where the rights of individuals are violated,’ hopefully setting a precedent for similar situations in the future. Facebook, he argues, is legally responsible for the removal of content which is defamatory or discriminatory, and that the website has failed to do so, instead creating ‘an environment that allows illegal content to thrive.’ Yet one of the lawyers representing Facebook, Martin Munz, said in court that this is an impossible expectation; with such a high volume of content being uploaded to Facebook every day, it would take ‘a miracle machine’ to comb through all of it.

This is not the first time in recent months that Facebook has become embroiled in issues of fake news and legal responsibility; Facebook was under considerable heat in the immediate wake of the US presidential election as allegations swarmed that the social media megalith had contributed to Donald Trump’s win. Facebook’s Trending Topics news side bar has been repeatedly criticised for failing to vet fake news stories from its list of hyperlinked headlines. Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina professor specializing in the social impact of technology, points out one notable example: ‘A fake story claiming Pope Francis – actually a refugee advocate – endorsed Mr. Trump was shared almost a million times, likely visible to tens of millions… its correction was barely heard,’ says Tufekci, ‘Of course Facebook had significant influence in this last election’s outcome.’ CEO Mark Zuckerberg at first denied any impact in the election, claiming that ‘of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes… overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other,’ but the company has indeed taken new measures to solidify its commitment to facts, including updating the algorithm of its Trending Topics sidebar to highlight more reliable news outlets and working in conjunction with well-regarded organisations such as The Washington Post to create curated newsreels. In many respects, however, this may be a case of too little, too late. The fact is that technology is, in many ways, irrevocably changing the political playing field worldwide – and we are only now beginning, as a general public, to realise it.

Trump’s win, as well as the Leave.EU campaign in the United Kingdom, were aided by London-based Big Data firm Cambridge Analytica, which uses digital consumer data in conjunction with psychometrics to predict and manipulate information and influence voting patterns. Cambridge Analytica is an offshoot of parent company Strategic Communications Lab (SLC), a self-described election management agency whose other spin-offs have been involved in elections in Ukraine and Nigeria, NATO votes in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, and more. Essentially, this is data drawn from social media: Facebook users’ likes, e-commerce habits, results of questionnaires and apps, and activity levels. Whilst Big Data as a concept has been around for several years— with externally-hosted Facebook apps asking users to allow access to personal data— the past year has seen a dramatic shift in how it is used, that is, with psychometrics, rather than basic demographic data, taking precedence and being used on the global political stage.

Needless to say, technology is a double-edged sword, and these new developments are concerning. Currently, with May at the helms in Britain and Trump commander-in-chief of the US, Angela Merkel is being held up by many as the incumbent defender of Western democracy against the current global rise in nationalist, alt-right populism. But, as Modamani’s defamation suit indicates, even Germany is not immune to the pervasive developments in technology and social media that have started to influence other countries’ political spheres— and this is a troubling moment for Germany, with the federal elections so imminent. While a successful injunction against Facebook will not entirely curb these alarming trends, it would set a positive precedent, showing that social media titans can and will take responsibility. The question is, will that be enough?