Making social media an instrument of democracy

AuthorThomas Wischmeyer
Publication Date01 Mar 2019
Making social media an instrument of democracy
Thomas Wischmeyer*
In recent years, the responsibility of social media platforms towards their users and society at large
has become a major political issue. However, the regulatory responses to the crisis of social media
are still mostly considered unsatisfactory, as demonstrated by the widespread criticism of the
German Network Enforcement Act of 2017. This article compares the current constitutional dis-
course on social media regulation with the debates that accompanied the last major transformation
of the media landscape: the rise of broadcasting. While we certainly do not find a roadmap for social
media regulation in the past, the key concept of the broadcasting discoursethe idea of media as a
sphere of institutional freedom’—can be applied to the challenges of today and can be used to
strengthen the democratic function of social media.
Over recent years, two major narratives have developed in response to the question: What kind of challenge do dig-
ital technologies pose for society? The first, which understands digitalisation
as a fundamental discontinuity in the
very fabric of society, takes its arguments largely from the postwar literature on technocracy. In the 1950s and
1960s, philosophers and sociologists argued that in the industrial age, technology had lost its emancipatory potential
and that instrumental rationality, as it is embedded in our devices and artefacts, had infected human minds. Writers
across the ideological spectrum including Martin Heidegger, Norbert Wiener and Helmuth Schelsky described why
capitalism slowly transforms human power over nature, materialised in technology, into the control of technology
over men and society. And they concluded that technological progress impoverishes human lives and ultimately
enables a system of total domination.
Herbert Marcuse, probably the most prominent voice of this movement,
put it as follows:
For the concept of technical reason is itself perhaps ideology. Not merely its application, but technique
itself is domination The aims and interests of domination are not additionalor dictated to technique
from abovethey enter into the construction of the technical apparatus itself. For technique is a social
Assistant Professor, Bielefeld, Germany. Parts of this paper were originally presented at the 4th GermanSouth African Dialogue on Democracy, University
of Mannheim, July 2018.
Digitalisationis understood here not in the narrow sense of converting analog information into a digital format, but as the process of change all sectors of
society are currently undergoing in response to the proliferation of digital technologies. For a nuanced account of this process, see D. Baecker, 4.0 oder Die
Lücke die der Rechner lässt (Merve, 2018).
M. Heidegger, Die Technik und die Kehre (Neske, 1962); N. Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (Houghton Mifflin, 1950); H. Schelsky, Der Mensch in
der wissenschaftlichen Zivilisation (Westdeutscher Verlag, 1961). For an overview of this debate, see B. Seibel, Cybernetic Government (Springer, 2016).
Received: 12 December 2018 Accepted: 7 February 2019
DOI: 10.1111/eulj.12312
Eur Law J. 2019;25:169181. © 2019 John Wiley & Sons 169

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