So­cial me­dia sites can’t al­low fake news to take over

The Myanmar Times - - News - THE WASHINGTON POST ED­I­TO­RIAL BOARD

FREE­DOM of ex­pres­sion is a bedrock of democ­racy, but its ir­re­spon­si­ble ex­er­cise can dis­tort and desta­bilise pol­i­tics. That re­al­ity is now at the cen­tre of at­ten­tion in the so­cial me­dia world as Face­book and oth­ers con­front ques­tions about their role in spread­ing fake news and false in­for­ma­tion be­fore and af­ter the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. The so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies must not duck this is­sue. It goes to the heart of an open so­ci­ety, and also is the key to their own cred­i­bil­ity and sur­vival.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the in­ter­net was a wild west, where in­for­ma­tion ran free. As Face­book, Google and Twit­ter grew, they cel­e­brated this as a virtue, in­sist­ing they were tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies built on al­go­rithms and not news me­dia out­lets. But on the road to be­com­ing true global giants, Face­book and the oth­ers took on enor­mous new power to shape the in­for­ma­tion that peo­ple con­sume. The lat­est Washington PostSchar School na­tional poll shows that when peo­ple are asked where they got their elec­tion news, 56 per­cent said tele­vi­sion, and 30pc said the in­ter­net. Among the sources on the in­ter­net, 32pc of the re­spon­dents iden­ti­fied so­cial me­dia, 29pc said news or­gan­i­sa­tions’ web­sites, and 15pc said Google or other search en­gines.

A dis­tinc­tion must be drawn be­tween per­sonal posts, which are best left largely un­fet­tered, and the news feed posts that can quickly go vi­ral, ac­cel­er­ated by al­go­rithms that re­spond to user en­gage­ment. When these posts sud­denly ex­plode and reach mil­lions of peo­ple, so­cial me­dia es­sen­tially be­comes news me­dia. There is se­ri­ous abuse when the con­tent is false, such as one post dur­ing the cam­paign say­ing the pope had en­dorsed Don­ald Trump (he didn’t), or a top Google search re­sult the other day that pointed to a fake site re­port­ing Trump had won the pop­u­lar vote (he did not).

Fake news is dan­ger­ous mis­chief and takes ad­van­tage of the fact that so­cial me­dia gen­er­ally rely on rapid­fire al­go­rithms and not de­lib­er­ate hu­man edit­ing. The so­cial me­dia ser­vices must ad­just to the re­al­ity that they now are news me­dia out­lets to some ex­tent; that means re­ly­ing more on hu­man ed­i­tors to weed out the fake news. The task is del­i­cate and re­quires bal­anced judge­ment. The aim must be not to cen­sor free ex­pres­sion or favour cer­tain po­lit­i­cal views, but to guard against de­cep­tion and fraud. In re­cent days Face­book and Google an­nounced they are cut­ting off ad­ver­tis­ing on sites car­ry­ing con­tent that is il­le­gal, mis­lead­ing or de­cep­tive; that’s a good first step.

Since the big­gest so­cial me­dia out­lets now span the globe, their op­er­at­ing stan­dards must show­case the best of democ­racy at work, and avoid giv­ing tyrants any im­pe­tus to crack down on dissent and free ex­pres­sion. This is a job for peo­ple, not al­go­rithms.

So­cial me­dia com­pa­nies have good rea­son to act here in or­der to pro­tect their own fu­ture. If users con­clude that the in­for­ma­tion high­lighted by Face­book, Google and Twit­ter is con­sis­tently un­re­li­able, they will look else­where. But so­ci­ety at large also has a big stake. The in­ter­net has be­come a vi­tal fo­rum for demo­cratic de­bate; it is es­sen­tial that that in­ter­change not be warped by pro­pa­ganda and lies.

– The Washington Post

Photo: EPA

A sign­board marks Face­book’s cor­po­rate head­quar­ters in Menlo Park, Cal­i­for­nia, USA.

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