Government must warn Facebook, Twitter and Google over false news

Former top US official Posner urges Ministers keep pressure up on ‘heavily polluted internet’

Michael Posner, who served in Barack Obama’s government between 2009 and 2013, says we live in a world where ‘people don’t know what the facts are, what the truth is’. Photograph:  Salvatore Di Nolfi/AP Photo

Michael Posner, who served in Barack Obama’s government between 2009 and 2013, says we live in a world where ‘people don’t know what the facts are, what the truth is’. Photograph: Salvatore Di Nolfi/AP Photo

 

The Irish Government must warn bosses at Facebook, Twitter and Google in Dublin that they face heavy regulation unless they move quickly to deal with widespread disinformation on social media, a former US assistant secretary of state has said.

Michael Posner, who served in Barack Obama’s government between 2009 and 2013, said it was “incumbent” on Cabinet Ministers in Dublin to ratchet up pressure on the big internet companies based in the capital over fake news and false information.

“It is clear there is a popular unhappiness in our societies with what they see as a heavily polluted internet that is undermining political discourse,” Mr Posner told The Irish Times.

“So, it is incumbent on the Irish Government and other governments to be clear with the companies that this is not business as usual – you have got to step up and do more.”

Mr Posner, who is professor of ethics and finance at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said the proliferation of political disinformation was impacting on the outcome of elections and the Brexit debate as well as views on immigrants and race.

‘Mitigate the damage’

“We are now living in a world where increasingly people don’t know what the facts are, what the truth is,” he said.

“There needs to be, I think, a much more deliberate effort by the internet platforms – Facebook, Google, Twitter – to moderate, regulate content and take a set of steps that will help mitigate the damage being done.

“I think this really is a crisis for our democracies, and we can’t just assume that things will return to normal. This is the new normal.”

Ahead of addressing a conference in Belfast which will examine the role of the media in deeply divided societies, Mr Posner said the threat of regulation was needed to get the big internet companies to “step up and take greater responsibility”.

“I would say to every government, including the Irish Government, that this is a moment to engage actively and make clear the level of anxiety and unhappiness with the gaps in [online] protection,” he said.

“I’m not an advocate for every country to be regulating content, but I do think it is really important for companies to understand that they are living on borrowed time.

“If things don’t improve in the next few years, I think it is almost inevitable that in Europe, the US, Australia and elsewhere, that there will be a public demand for regulation and for breaking up these big companies.”

Conference

The Irish Government also has a role in the issue at discussions in Brussels and should consider making companies appear regularly before parliamentary hearings “to put their feet to the fire”, Mr Posner suggested.

Mr Posner will address the conference, The Media in Deeply Divided Societies – Its Roles and Responsibilities, in Riddel Hall, Belfast, on November 8th and 9th.

Organised by the Social Change Initiative, it will also feature journalists from South Africa, Colombia, Myanmar, Rwanda, Turkey, the Middle East, the Balkans, Kashmir, Somalia, Syria and Nepal as well as Irish Times Northern Correspondent Freya McClements.