On a Friday in March 2019, Brenton Tarrant raided an mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The 28-year-old Australian killed more than 50 worshippers and injured as many.
Worldwide the shock was huge in view of this act, in the aftermath. But the murderer also received worldwide encouragement, in real time. Tarrant filmed his victims murder with a camera mounted on his helmet and transmitted the video some 16 minutes and 55 seconds live to the Internet. Some 200 people watched the life footage, some simultaneously published right-wing extremist hate messages.
It took 32 minutes from the start of the attack and 12 minutes after the massacre ended before Facebook employees deleted the video. By then, many around the world had watched the massacre - and many had made copies of this material.
Within the next 48 hours, Facebook alone had to delete more than 1.5 million versions of the footage. The material will probably circulate on the net forever.
What does this event have to do with the topic of our panel?
As I prepared for this event, I remembered the Sant´Egidio peace meeting, which took place almost exactly five years ago in Antwerp. There also was a panel on the role of so-called social media and conflict. Shortly before, IS-terrorists had filmed the beheading of two US-American hostages and spread it worldwide with the help of various Internet platforms.
The horror at that time was no less greater than it was after the events of Christchurch - but also the worldwide enthusiasm, albeit from the reverse side. In August and September 2014 Islamists massacred two white men (there should be more), in March 2019 a white man massacred Muslims indiscriminately.
But I would like to go even further back. I also remember the peace meeting in Rome in 2013: “Describing the World - Information and Peace" was the title of a panel that already then dealt with the role of traditional and new media in the process of opening up reality.
Or to the peace meeting in Munich in 2011: "Religion and dialogue. In times of Facebook, twitter and Co.”
On the one hand, one must be grateful to the community of Sant´ Egidio for repeatedly raising the question of the role of the new and the old media for the peaceful coexistence of people and societies.
But it should also be an expression of gratitude not to close one's eyes to the fact that the role of the so-called social media in particular is much more fatal than I or probably you ever imagined.
I must make a personal confession before the following: I only recently created a Facebook account, we deleted the family chat group on Whatsapp after Whatsapp was bought up by Facebook, I'm not on Twitter, do not have an Instagram or Snapchat account, and I do not use Google as main search engine.
If you think I'm not qualified to have a say on this, you may have point. But by avoiding these platforms I'm primarily making use of my right to "informational self-determination" - a human right that the tech giants keep violating: Data always finds its way to where it should never go, and is repeatedly misused for purposes that you never agreed to when you agreed to the terms and conditions of one of these quasi-monopolists.
In other words: Even if you make use of some very complicated precautions, with your consent you inevitably become one of billion of objects of a "surveillance capitalism", which offers you an extremely attractive, but at the same time extremely perverse business: in return of almost unlimited communication possibilities and spaces free of charge you have to supply highly personal data.
In autocratic regimes such as Russia or China, you are exposing yourself to a state surveillance apparatus that cannot be thought of more perfectly.
In Western societies - and these are the only ones I would like to talk about - things are more harmless. You are targeted not only by companies, which use “Big Data” in order offer material goods and services. Political actors use the same method to influence public opinion. This gives "big data" a quality that not only damages the inalienable human rights of each individual. The tech companies provide the enemies of liberal societies with the means to destroy them.
The most striking example is the role of data of some 87 million Facebook-users evaluated by Cambridge Analytica in 2016. With the help of this data, voters in the American presidential election campaign were specifically confronted with ads and political messages that were supposed to turn them into Trump-voters.
Who was behind this advertising was rarely recognizable to the recipients. Today we know that, among others, the Russian government used social media to influence the election campaign and install a potentially Russia-friendly president. The result is well known: Trump is not (yet) a friend of Wladimir Putin (like Bibi Netanyahu) and has not made great deals with the Russian autocrat. But Trump is the first president of the United States to owe his power to social media.
Since 2016, some things have changed. Algorithms are being developed in order to prevent “fake news” to be distributed, in countries where parliaments have put a stop to the unrestricted distribution of criminal content by law or by coercive measures, hundreds if not thousands of people are working to remove material that violates current regulations. That is certainly a step in the right direction. The same applies to the establishment of a stricter European data protection law and the imposition of fines on companies that do not comply with the rules of “surveillance capitalism”.
But - the five billion dollar fine imposed in 2019 by an US government agency in the Cambridge Analytica case is far too small to impress Facebook. It is not even ten percent of the profit that Facebook makes in just one year. After the release of the fine, the company's shares price promptly went up.
More or less the same applies to Google. Last week it became known, that Google had been fined with $170 million by the Federal Trade Commission for illegally collecting children's data on YouTube and profiting from it. The company did not hesitate to promise that it would make changes to protect children's privacy on YouTube, as regulators said the video site had knowingly and illegally harvested personal information from youngsters and used that data to profit by targeting them with ads.
But would it be wise to trust a company, whose existence depends on mining data on the largest scale possible and to make use of it. As some financial institutions are too big to fail, the tech giants are too big to be controlled.
Of course, every data scandal that was uncovered by government authorites was followed by verbose apologies and confessions of improvement. No more unauthorized data flow, algorithms will filter hate speech and other unwanted communication in such a way that it does not even get into the network, accounts being blocked for violating rules set by governments or the company itself.
I'm not sure if all these measures are enough to force the tech giants to make them comply with law only - not to mention any moral claims. My technical knowledge is far from sufficient to imagine how filters and other instruments could work to distinguish between allowed and forbidden forms of communication. Much of what comes across as "hate speech" due to term recognition programs can also be communication about "hate speech".
Instead, I would like to steer your thoughts in another direction. Of the term "surveillance capitalism", the first element usually attracts the most attention. I would like draw your attention to the second element and encourage you to enhance any initiative to beat the social media with your own weapons.
The capital they accumulate is your data. Why not deprive them of capital? Can you not imagine a platform like Facebook that is not profit-oriented, but non-profit?
To think this way is of course hopelessly naive, because the offers of the conventional platforms are almost infinite. But that's exactly where a second idea comes into my mind: the restriction or perhaps the destruction of platforms, because their power resembles that of a monopoly or at least an oligopoly. In the tradition of Catholic social thought dating back to the Middle Ages, the fight against monopolies has always been one of the most important topics: since then, it is all about protecting citizens against exploitative powers.
Because capitalism can only be beaten with one's own weapons, these should be used much more purposefully than before. It would seem very attractive to me if governments raise the costs of violating the law, so that it is no longer worth it.
Fines like the ones we have seen so far are ridiculously low compared to the capitalization of the tech giants.
The business model as such should be taken as a starting point. If Facebook, Google or Instagram were to be unaccessible for a day, a week or a month because, once again, data had been passed on without permission or because no precautions had been taken to prevent right-wing extremists or Islamist propaganda videos from circulating freely on the net for hours, then users would very soon find their way to where their communications would function undisturbed.
In short: the regulatory authorities of states or supranational organisations such as the EU should have the right to prohibit the operation of a company (not the Internet) for shorter or longer periods of time.
Just as it is in real life with companies whose products or manufacturing methods can be toxic for you or your loved ones or for the coexistence of people - such as the live footing of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand.