Contemporary threats to human rights in the online public sphere. The case of Facebook

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Segura Vides, María José
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This thesis examines how the current use of social media platforms as forums for public discussions impacts human rights. The discussion makes use of Facebook as an example of a major platform that is globally used for public debate. The thesis builds on the concept of the public sphere, developed by Habermas, to look at the nature of today’s public forums in the online realm. It finds that the normative public sphere is subject to a dramatic change and it claims that this shift is rooted in the overlapping of the private and the public. Two main elements are challenged in social media platforms. In the first place, the public sphere is based on civic engagement and participation but content moderation policies by platforms owners are disrupting this idea. Secondly, Habermas envisioned a public sphere that is free from commercial interests but this ideal is being corrupted by the platforms’ profit-driven goals. This thesis indicates that such a significant transformation of the public sphere is having, among others, a negative impact on the human rights associated to public life. Freedom of expression and the right to privacy, respectively. An analysis of how social media like Facebook are taking on the duty of gatekeepers of public speech, effectively shaping user participation and the public discourse, illustrates the profound effects of platforms’ policies on freedom of expression. Likewise, a study of the online business model of these corporations demonstrates the threat that this business model poses to users’ right to privacy. The thesis concludes with the concern that users exercise their human rights and freedoms within privately owned platforms that operate outside the human rights protection framework. It looks at existing efforts, including regulation, and examines ways of overcoming the governance gaps that prevent human rights from being protected in the online realm of social media platforms. Keywords: public sphere, Facebook, right to privacy, freedom of expression, content moderation, online business model
Second semester University: University of Southern Denmark/Danish Institute for Human Rights
human rights, social networks, media, public-private, freedom of expression, right of privacy, business