Fake news. The term has become so ubiquitous in recent times, it has lost its currency, to a large extent. It’s an accusation thrown around by many to describe news they simply don’t like, of course. And in many respects, it’s just another term for certain type of propaganda that’s been around for thousands of years.
The Roman emperor, Octavian, was an adept propagandist against his chief adversary, Mark Anthony, over 2000 years ago. Broadcaster William Joyce, otherwise known as Lord Haw-Haw, was the chief disseminator of “fake news” on behalf of the Nazis, trying to destroy the will of the British during World War II. And anyone who watched coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq will remember the absurd commentary of Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf , dubbed “Comical Ali” for broadcasting pro-Saddam Hussein propaganda even as his forces collapsed around him.
But in the Internet age, so-called “fake news” has taken on a life of its own. And today, Facebook launched a national advertising campaign in the UK aimed at educating users how to distinguish between the legitimate and the phony.
On Today with Sean O’Rourke, Facebook’s move, part of a crack down on the false information epidemic seen on its platform of late, was discussed by Luc Delany, former European policy manager for Facebook, and Hugh Linehan, culture editor and former digital editor of the Irish Times.
Among the most serious issues is the fact that, apart from so much news being “fake”, much of what is circulated is downright illegal, routinely violating defamation laws. But how is it allowed to exist, in those circumstances? According to Luc Delany.
‘Whenever Facebook is informed that something is illegal, they are under an obligation to take action. They are not obliged to pre-screen content. They are an information society service; they have a hosting liability exemption. And that’s how the entire Internet works. If every site was liable for the content, then e-mail wouldn’t be able to exist, neither would Facebook or Twitter.’
The likes of Facebook and Twitter are, in effect, aggregators and hosts. They are not classified as publishers, in the traditional sense. But for traditional media, like the Irish times, where Hugh Linehan is an editor, the bar is set much higher.
‘Defamatory comments can be posted, and I’m sure have been posted in the last few seconds, on Facebook that, were they to be published on the Irish Times website, would immediately place us in serious legal jeopardy.’
Fake news is distinct from satire, although in many cases, satire offered by the likes of The Onion, News Thump, and Waterford Whispers News, has been so sharp as to be mistaken for real news. Even defining “fake news” can pose problems.
But with the sheer power of social media platforms, particularly Facebook, legislators across the world are increasingly less patient with the volume of misinformation available, the speed with which it is disseminated, and the lack of speedy corrective action from the hosts. According to Hugh Linehan, ‘one of the huge bones of contention, particularly in Europe, and Germany in particular, has been over the speed, or the lack of speed, with which those actions have been taken. Hence the increasing of the number of moderators on the site.’
‘There are serious proposals in Germany from members of the Bundestag that, were Facebook and other providers not to take down material within a much shorter time period (i.e. a number of hours as opposed to a number of days), well then they would be liable for really punitive financial fines. And that is something that Facebook is fiercely resisting. But I think it’s going to have to take those things on board.’
This will be one to watch, as Facebook chief executive, Sheryl Sandberg, has recently argued that the platform could not be “an arbiter of truth”. But, with 31 million accounts registered in Britain alone, and a recent poll revealing that a majority of US adults – some 62% – get their news on Facebook, its power simply can’t be understated.
To listen to the full interview with Hugh Linehan and Luc Delany, click here.
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