Social media giants have a crucial role to play in this year’s German election - Mozilla will be watching them

In September, people across Germany will go to the polls for the first major election in a G7 country since the 2020 US Elections. In an election where Chancellor Angela Merkel will be stepping down, everything is to play for. We already know that social media will be a crucial battleground for the German election, but what are social media giants doing to stem the tide of election-related misinformation and disinformation?

It is now well understood that social media platforms play a critical role in the spread of election mis- and disinformation, and that they have a range of interventions at their disposal.

And already, reports of underhanded tactics by bad actors in Germany are coming to light – a theme unfortunately now emerging as a common fixture in modern elections worldwide.

We’re concerned by the potential impact of misinformation on the democratic process, so today Mozilla is announcing it will track the policies of the big 5 social media platforms in the lead-up to election day in Germany. We’re also going to compare what platforms did in the United States. Will they put in the same effort for an election outside the U.S., where English isn’t the primary language?

In the coming weeks, we will be analysing the approaches platforms take in Germany in real-time as they’re released. We’ll specifically look at Facebook/Instagram, Youtube, TikTok and Twitter.

Our recommendations to social media companies for Germany’s 2021 Bundestag election can be summed up in six words: Start yesterday, and keep it up.

To preserve election integrity, social media platforms have a range of interventions at their disposal. Immediately, we’d like to see:

  • Sustained efforts, starting earlier: The greatest activity the US election cycle came in the weeks just prior to and then after the actual election, when platforms were reacting to entrenched misinformation campaigns and arguably much of the damage from misinformation had already been done. Platforms should be more proactive in order to avoid being cornered into reaction.
  • Lessons from the US elections applied in Germany (and other countries): Platforms now have little excuse not to intervene to protect election integrity. These efforts will demand increased resources in language and cultural understanding to appropriately engage within the German context.
  • More transparency and data about impacts: Today only the platforms themselves are in a position to understand and assess the impact of their interventions. By releasing more data, platforms could enable third-party researchers, journalists, policymakers and the public to better independently evaluate the impact of these policies on election-related misinformation.

Mozilla’s analysis from the US elections showed that despite new efforts to manage mis- and dis-information, the platforms left a lot to be desired when it came to protecting election integrity. Platforms did too little, too late to prevent material impacts from misinformation. Platforms were generally reactive rather than proactive, introducing temporary, sticking plaster solutions in response to bad news.

Our initial research shows that social media companies have yet to make any substantial policy changes before this election in Germany, while they also have already proven to be poor at enforcing policies to stem the tide of misinformation surrounding elections. For example, Facebook pledged to permanently stop recommending political and issue-based group recommendations, but is failing to enforce its own policy.

Three of the main political parties in Germany have already pledged to run fair campaigns online, in response to proposed codes of conduct for political parties put forward by civil society. However, there have already been attacks on election-integrity and the major platforms have yet to respond – much less take steps for prevention. As of now, the platforms seem unwilling to adjust their approach by limiting engagement or policing misinformation – they appear more interested in protecting their bottom line than protecting electoral integrity.

There remains a persistent lack of data about how well social media platforms enforce their policies and their impact on election misinformation. Mozilla is calling for public access to this data to improve trust in social media platforms and create a better understanding of which policies should be adopted for future elections.

We welcome your input on the policy tracker – and we’ll be updating the document in real-time during the German election cycle. Email us at platformtracker@mozillafoundation.org – it goes to real humans.