Saturday 21 April 2018

Steve Dempsey: Who's on the front line in the war against fake news?

'Facebook has announced that Germany is the next country where its programme of fact-checking, labelling, and curbing fake news will be rolled' File photo: PA
'Facebook has announced that Germany is the next country where its programme of fact-checking, labelling, and curbing fake news will be rolled' File photo: PA
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

The Czech Republic has just set up a unit called the Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats. Ironically, it's based in a former communist regime interrogation centre. But to distance itself from any Cold War overtones, the centre's website explains that it won't have a button for switching off the website and it "will not lock anyone up, interrogate anyone, or lead any proceedings with anyone".

Why has this centre been created? To combat fake news, that's why. Ahead of elections in October, Czech officials are wary of a host of websites which may have Russian backing and which seem designed to undermine the EU and the democratic system that's been in effect since the fall of communism in 1989.

And the Czechs are not alone in grappling with fake news ahead of elections. Many other governments, publishers and institutions are eying the recent US presidential election, and wondering how to avoid similar levels of misinformation and polarisation.

In Germany, a slew of websites like anonymousnews.ru and noch.info, which publish pro-Russia propaganda, refugee fear-mongering and bogus conspiracy theories have sprung up. "Stasi and KGB: Angela Merkel is the daughter of Adolf Hitler" and "CIA has had a heart attack gun since 1975" are the types of headlines you find on these sites. In response, sites like Hoaxmap.org have sprung up. Hoaxmap collates and scotches false rumours about migrants - the stories it exposes range from refugees desecrating graves to stealing and eating swans.

Facebook has announced that Germany is the next country where its programme of fact-checking, labelling, and curbing fake news will be rolled out. German Facebook users that share a story that's deemed iffy will be served a pop-up that says: "Before you share this story, you might want to know that independent fact-checkers disputed its accuracy." Who's checking the facts? Well, in America Facebook is working with a who's who of fact-checkers; the Associated Press, Snopes, Factcheck.org, ABC News, and PolitiFact. In Germany it will be working with a non-profit research centre, Correctiv.

However, Facebook may need to do more. The German Justice Minister has suggested that the social network should be treated as a media company. This would make it liable for fake news or hate speech, and extend legal responsibilities like the obligation to publish corrections, and the responsibility to develop pubic opinion, or 'Meinungsbildung' as the Germans call it. Yes, the Germans take their media very seriously, indeed.

France has elections in 2017 too. French publisher Le Monde, has created a database of hundreds of unreliable websites and is using this data to power a suite of fake news-scotching products. Le Monde's readers will be able to check whether URLs are reliable on lemonade.fr and via a chatbot in Facebook's messenger app, The publisher is also creating extensions for the Chrome and Firefox browsers which will alert users when they are reading false or unverified stories that come from questionable sources.

So there are a host of attempts being made to counteract fake news. But you could level an accusation that it's all very uncoordinated. The questions need to be asked, who should have ultimate responsibility for safeguarding the truth?

Chairman of the Italian Competition Authority Giovanni Pitruzzella thinks it should be the state, not media companies and certainly not the likes of Facebook and Google. In an interview with the Financial Times, he stated that each EU country should have its own independent body tasked with flagging fake news, removing it from circulation and imposing fines. These should operate like antitrust agencies, and be coordinated on a European level by Brussels.

Pitruzzella acknowledged that tech companies are working on new policies and tweaking algorithms to fight fake news but maintained they can't be relied on as the arbiters of truth. It's a fair point, these are primarily engineering and sales companies. They are international in nature and they are designed to increase shareholder value. But surely the creation of state agencies to police the news could lead to accusations of censorship at best, or an Orwellian-style Ministry of Truth at worst?

Legislators certainly have a role to play. But perhaps they shouldn't be empowering civil servants to check the facts. Perhaps governments need to rely on those who have the skills and pedigree to fight fake news. Who could that possibly be? The media, that's who! A stronger media, with a civic mandate to quash lies and contribute to public discourse, would go a long way to combatting the rise of fake news. Maybe European technocrats need to consider how they could strengthen and support the battered news industry across the continent, provided those news outlets are seen to contribute to the social good. Maybe the Germans are onto something with their idea of Meinungsbildung, after all.

Sunday Indo Business

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