Irish Times View: With power comes responsibility

Facebook must face up to fake news

 

This week, Facebook began testing new measures to fact-check and flag fake news for the first time outside the US.

Unsurprisingly, Germany was the first country in which the social media company chose to roll out filters allowing users to report false stories to a third-party fact-checker, which would then flag stories deemed untrue.

Since the US presidential election there has been growing concern in Germany that the country’s own election, due to take place later this year, will be similarly tainted by misinformation and hacking.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned of the potential dangers of campaigns being orchestrated by Russia, while credible reports indicate many fabricated and misleading news articles have already been published targeting her government’s policies, along with incendiary stories about refugees and Islam.

How effective the new initiative will be remains to be seen, relying as it does on the services of a no-profit company which will not be paid by Facebook.

Determined to resist

Social media companies remain determined to resist taking direct responsibility for content published and disseminated on their platforms, seeking to maintain the distinction between the services they provide and traditional publishing or broadcasting.

That position is coming increasingly under strain, particularly in Germany, where justice minister Heiko Maas has suggested that Facebook should be treated as a media company, making it liable for fake news or hate speech shared on its site, while parliamentarians in the Bundestag are proposing a law that would impose punitive fines on social media companies which do not react swiftly to complaints.

The overall trend is unmistakable; Facebook and other services will fight a vigorous rearguard action, but legislators are becoming impatient with their refusal to accept that the huge power they now wield comes with significant responsibilities to civic society.

Germany is currently taking the lead, but the ramifications of these issues transcend borders and must inevitably become the subject of international debate, not least in Ireland, where the European headquarters of most of these companies are located.

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