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Democracy on the Internet: Platform Councils as an Advisory Tool for Social Media

Democracy on the Internet: Platform Councils as an Advisory Tool for Social Media

Hamburg, Berlin, Innsbruck, 4 May 2023. A research team publishes policy recommendations for the implementation of independent bodies to monitor social media platforms. It has spent a year investigating how democratic values and human rights can be protected in the digital space. The researchers propose so-called Social Media Councils (SMCs) as a useful advisory instrument for private platform companies. They can represent the interests of citizens, industry, and politics in important decision-making issues such as discrimination, freedom of expression or disinformation.
The research project "Platform://Democracy" is funded by the Stiftung Mercator and conducted by the Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI), the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) and the Department of Legal Theory and Future of Law at the University of Innsbruck.
For Professor Wolfgang Schulz, media law expert and research director at HIIG and HBI, it is clear that "social media platforms like Facebook, TikTok or Twitter have created private and powerful orders of communication. With their own terms of use and algorithmic moderation practices, they control what can and cannot be said on them." According to Schulz, it is not considered "who represents the interests of the platform users and the public at large in these decisions.

For this reason, 35 researchers from six continents investigated in the research project funded by the Mercator Foundation which models already exist worldwide for linking private orders back to social, ethical, and moral values. To do this, they looked at various advisory bodies such as media, AI and television councils in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and the American continents. They then analysed how these represent the public to private actors in areas such as media regulation, the internet, youth protection and schools. "So far, there is no patent remedy for safeguarding democracy in the digital age," says Professor Matthias C. Kettemann, "not even a shared awareness of what the problem is."
For the head of the research project, the study has provided important insights in this regard: "Our regional studies have been able to show that models of social reconnection work worldwide. So, there is a real need to advise and control powerful communication actors - like platforms - on how they set rules and enforce them algorithmically." Kettemann concludes that "platform councils are a viable tool to advise big social media on important social negotiation processes."
The findings of the study come at a time when the German government also wants to advance this idea. In its coalition agreement, the goal is to further develop platform councils as bodies composed of state representatives, experts and selected civil society actors. "However, compromises in the design of the councils must be carefully considered," emphasises project member Josefa Francke. "They must be fair and inclusive, and it must be ensured that their members have access to sufficient expertise.
Does every platform and every country need its own council? The researchers find this less useful. Their findings speak in favour of an overarching commission that focuses on guaranteeing human rights on the internet.  It could provide expertise in this field, following the example of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. Especially, says Professor Wolfgang Schulz, "when it comes to decisions that affect platforms and the public interest in a special way. For example, the question of how persons in political life, such as Donald Trump, should be treated. Or whether and how platforms should best deal with certain media content. For example, do they have to gear their recommendation systems towards diversity?". The results of the research project are groundbreaking for upcoming test cases in politics, both in Germany and globally.
Public Discussion of the Findings
On Thursday, 4 May 2023, interested parties can follow the presentation of the results at 6 p.m. during a digital panel discussion. You can register for the Digital Mercator Talk at the following link.
Further Information
Research findings and political recommendations for action
Platform://Democracy Research Project
Read More
Parlamente für Plattformen: Faire Regulierung für Online-Kommunikationsräume. [Parliaments for Platforms: Fair Regulation for Online Communication Spaces.] | turi2
Plattformräte: Können sie digitale Plattformen zur Verantwortung drängen? [Platform Councils: Can They Hold Digital Platforms Accountable?]
Musks Scheindemokratie: Trump wieder auf Twitter [Musk's Sham Democracy: Trump on Twitter Again]
Wie soll die digitale Demokratie aussehen? [What Should Digital Democracy Look Like?]
Contact for press and questions about the project
Frederik Efferenn
Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG)
Tel. +49 30 200 760 82
Prof. Dr. Matthias C. Kettemann, LL.M. (Harvard)
Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI) (Hamburg)
Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG)
Tel. 0049 176 817 50 920

The Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG)
The Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) researches the development of the internet from a societal perspective in order to better understand the associated digitalisation of all areas of life. As the first research institute in Germany with a focus on internet and society, HIIG has developed an understanding that emphasises the embedding of digital innovations in societal processes. Based on this transdisciplinary expertise and as part of the Global Network of Interdisciplinary Internet & Society Research Centers, HIIG wants to develop a European response to digital structural change.

The Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans-Bredow-Institut
The Leibniz Institute for Media Research │Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI) researches media change and the associated structural changes in public communication. Cross-media, interdisciplinary and independent, it combines basic science and transfer research, thus creating problem-relevant knowledge for politics, business and civil society. The institute researches how certain forms of media-based communication help shape areas of life such as politics, business, culture, education, law, religion and family and contribute to structural transformations. The problem orientation of the research is accompanied by a special interest in the respective "new" media, to whose understanding and shaping the institute wants to contribute.
Department of Legal Theory and Future of Law
The Department for Theory and Future of Law was founded in 2019 as the tenth institute of the Faculty of Law at the University of Innsbruck. Teaching and research at the Institute focus on legal issues arising from new developments in society, politics, technology and the economy. In diverse research projects, members of the Institute deal with the governance of platforms, exoskeletons, quantum ethics, AI and sustainability.

Die Stiftung Mercator
Stiftung Mercator is a private, independent foundation. In its work, it strives to create a society that is characterised by openness to the world, solidarity and equal opportunities. In doing so, it concentrates on strengthening Europe, increasing educational success among disadvantaged children and young people, in particular those with a migration background, improving the quality and impact of cultural education, and advancing climate protection and promoting science. Stiftung Mercator advocates for the connection of scientific expertise and practical project experience. As a leading foundation in Germany, it is nationally and internationally active. It is particularly committed to the Ruhr area, the home of the founding family and the seat of the foundation.


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