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Social media: social threads or threats to human rights?

Council of Europe. Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media

Rapporteur : Mr José CEPEDA, Spain, SOC

Origin – Reference to committee: Doc. 14184, Reference 4264 of 23 January 2017 – 19 March 2019


Social media are part of our daily lives. They play an important role in building social connections, provide a forum for free debate on political affairs and society, and can contribute to greater diversity of opinion and increased democratic participation. Their misuse, however, can trigger numerous harmful consequences, affecting individual rights and the functioning of democratic institutions. Information filtering, data mining, profiling and micro-targeting, aided by increasingly powerful artificial intelligence systems, risk threatening human dignity and opening the door to the hidden manipulation of individual behaviour or public opinion.

Public authorities and internet companies should combine forces to firmly defend freedom of expression and information, stop the spread of illegal content and ensure quality information. Greater transparency regarding algorithms, and adequate information about their functioning for users, will be needed. The Parliamentary Assembly should encourage the ratification of the Council of Europe’s modernised Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data, in order to strengthen data protection laws, while the major internet companies should rethink their economic models to give back to users control of their personal data.


Treaty of the Council of Europe, human rights, Internet, disinformation, access to information, protection of privacy, virtual community, artificial intelligence, data protection, freedom of expression

A. Draft resolution

B. Explanatory memorandum by Mr José Cepeda, rapporteur

1. Rationale of the present report

1.1. Social media and their growing importance

  1. Online social networking sites (or social networks) and social media have been one of the fastest growing phenomena in the 21st century. For example, Facebook grew from less than 1 million users in 2004 to more than 2.23 billion monthly active users in June 2018 (with an increase of 100 million monthly active users from December 2017). If Facebook were a physical nation, it would be the most populated country on earth. YouTube follows closely, with 1.9 billion (namely an increase of some 300 million users in less than a year); Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) has reached one billion monthly active users. The success story of these giant sites is coupled with the growing popularity of mobile social networking apps. Just to mention the biggest two: WhatsApp and Messenger (both owned by Facebook) have 1.5 and 1.3 billion monthly active users respectively.
  2. Not only are more of us using social networks, we are also spending more and more time online. According to Eurobarometer, 65% of Europeans – and 93% of people aged between15 and 25 – use internet either every day or almost every day. One of our most frequent activities online is participating in social networks: 42% of Europeans – and more than 80% of people aged between 15 and 25 – use online social networks daily. These proportions have risen continuously over the last few years and the expectation is that they will continue to increase. Moreover, our children are starting to use social media earlier and earlier in their young lives.
  3. There is no doubt that the internet in general and social media in particular are influencing the way we look for and access information, communicate with each other, share knowledge and form and express our opinions. This is having a significant impact both on our individual lifestyles and on the way our societies develop.

1.2. The positive contribution of social media to the well-being of our societies

1.3. The dark side of social media and the scope of the present report

2. Freedom of expression

2.1. Boundaries of freedom of expression and the problem of illicit content

2.2. Power to control information disseminated through social media and arbitrary censorship

3. Freedom of information

3.1. The issue of information disorder

3.2. Biased access to preselected sources of information

3.3. Controlling the information and manipulation

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. …

Whatever attitude one chooses toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons … who understand the mental process and social pattern of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.” 

4. The right to privacy

4.1. Information, user consent and privacy settings

4.2. Data profiling, automated decision making and manipulation

5. Ways forward

5.1. Upholding freedom of expression and freedom of information while avoiding abuses

5.1.1. Improving social media content policies

5.1.2. Enhancing information quality and counter disinformation

a. most of their content is news about current events presenting civic and socially relevant information;

b. most of their staff are professional journalists (e.g. with a university degree in communication sciences or an equivalent professional certification);

c. a very high percentage of their news (e.g. 99%) are proven to be fact based and accurate.

5.1.3. Ensuring diversity of sources, topics and views

5.2. Strengthening users’ control over their data

5.2.1. Information, user consent and privacy settings

“Every individual shall have a right:

a. not to be subject to a decision significantly affecting him or her based solely on an automated processing of data without having his or her views taken into consideration;

b. to obtain, on request, at reasonable intervals and without excessive delay or expense, confirmation of the processing of personal data relating to him or her, the communication in an intelligible form of the data processed, all available information on their origin, on the preservation period as well as any other information that the controller is required to provide in order to ensure the transparency of processing …;

c. to obtain, on request, knowledge of the reasoning underlying data processing where the results of such processing are applied to him or her;

d. to object at any time, on grounds relating to his or her situation, to the processing of personal data concerning him or her unless the controller demonstrates legitimate grounds for the processing which override his or her interests or rights and fundamental freedoms;

e. to obtain, on request, free of charge and without excessive delay, rectification or erasure, as the case may be, of such data if these are being, or have been, processed contrary to the provisions of this Convention;

f. to have a remedy … where his or her rights under this Convention have been violated;

g. to benefit, whatever his or her nationality or residence, from the assistance of a supervisory authority … in exercising his or her rights under this Convention.”

5.2.2. Oversee, correct and refuse data profiling

5.2.3. Give back to users full control over their data

6. Conclusions

Cepeda, J. “Social media: social threads or threats to human rights?”, Report Doc.14844. 19 March 2019. Council of Europe. Recuperado de http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-EN.asp?fileid=27472&lang=en

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