The high quality democracies of northern Europe are an unnatural construct, history teaching us that the universal default setting of human society is authoritarianism. There are many key elements in crafting and sustaining such high quality democracies, including engendering a common body of trusted information, a communitarian spirit, the rule of law and the like.
The element most under stress in the European Union at the moment is the pillar of an electorate informed by a common body of facts. That stress exists because of conflict between the core responsibility of media platforms as truth tellers and the business model of social media platforms like Facebook and Google. Resolving that conflict to ease the existential danger it poses to the high quality democracies requires that social media platforms conform to the traditions and obligations of other media (print and broadcast) platforms as fact-driven societal rapporteurs (by mission at least).
In April, the European Commission will release its first set of notions on how member governments and social media platforms tech groups should tackle internet fake news. Critics warn it will fall drastically short of crafting a social media environment comparable to the European print and broadcast media environment emphasizing truth-telling.
Instead, the notions will be drawn in part from a report requested by the EC and issued on March 12. The industry-friendly authors concluded that steps to stem fake content should be addressed with voluntary guidelines. The report quixotically recommended that social media platforms help users identify fake news and support fact-based journalism. (Will Google soon hire investigative reporters and Facebook share profits with Berliner Zeitung, the Guardian, Le Monde and the New York Times?) The participants’ most fundamental error was failing to draw equivalence between the obligations of social media platforms analogous to those borne today by other media platforms as truth-tellers.
EU officials are intimidated by social media platforms, the industry attitude summed up by Twitter representatives testifying before British officials in early March, “We are not the arbiters of truth.” Social media platforms are loath to censor fake content, acutely cognizant that its novelty and sensationalism makes it more alluring to readers than factual content. It travels faster and further, each repetition producing revenue-generating clicks.
The differential allure of fake news was most recently documented by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Utilizing the huge data base of every tweet written between 2006 and 2017, they found that fake tweets were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than factual news. The most repeated fact-based news reached perhaps 1,000 people while the top 1 percent of fake news reports (about politics, for instance) reached up to 100,000 readers.
Dithering by the EC in corralling social media platforms has the most serious consequences for democracy. For instance, there are over 30 Czech language websites actively disseminating pro-Russian propaganda as you read this – a mendacious xenophobic blend of praise for Putin, invented conspiracies, fake news coupled with demonization of political opponents, NATO, Germany, France, foreigners and the European social democratic model. These sites have become the main source of information for a full quarter of Czechs. They form the core of support for the pro-Russian Czech president Milos Zeman, applauding his intended dissolution of an independent press and Czech judiciary. Authoritarian propaganda carried by Facebook, Google and the like has skewed national attitudes, causing Czech support for NATO to fall below 50 percent; even fewer support the EU. Similar active sites exist in every other EU nation with a similar goal of debilitating democracy by fomenting disunity and discord.
Change is coming?
There are three options for cleansing social media: Flagging, ex-post curating (censoring) and ex-ante curating.
Flagging: Social media platforms have deflected pressure to curate fake content by enlisting third parties like Correctiv, Snopes and PolitiFact to investigate user complaints and flag offensive postings. Google, for instance, has enlisted Wikipedia to evaluate and flag YouTube’s content. (Google’s revenue was nearly €100 billion in 2017; Wikipedia is volunteer-driven and funded by donations.) Moreover, flagging may well exacerbate the content crisis. Yale University researchers found that flagging caused a scant 3.7 percent of readers to be less likely to believe the fakes. Worse, it appears to make the flagged flamboyant content or heinous acts click bait.
Ex-Post Curation: The dodging of accountability for content by internet firms incentivized Germany to pass the 2018 Network Enforcement Law imposing fines of up to €50 million on platforms that fail to take down fake or heinous material within 24 hours of being reported. The EC followed suit this month. Yet, ex-post curation is imperfect. For instance, Google has granted only 43 percent of the 2.4 million requests received under the EU’s “right to be forgotten” 2014 ruling by the European Court of Justice, requiring firms to delete results fingering individuals or corporations. Far more worrisome, the concept of ex-post curation is fatally flawed because it allows fake content to metastasize, globally disseminated, unrecoverable, even if the initial posting is promptly deleted. Ex-post curation will not stop the proliferation of fake news, doctored videos, beheadings, Russian disinformation and other pathologies being published by social media.
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Ex Ante Curation: Social media platforms largely avoid the onerous chore routinely borne by other media platforms of ex-ante content curation. Yet, they have that prowess. The platforms already ban some users who run afoul of government regulations or platform rules. Facebook recently took down some terrorist sites. After many risible delays, it banned the conservative firm Cambridge Analytica for harvesting user data without permission to subliminally manipulate tens of millions of American voters. It will soon ban cryptocurrency scams. And it also recently removed the Islamophobic “Britain First” hate group that routinely ran doctored videos and incendiary fake news to sow racial discord. (In each of these instances, Facebook reluctantly acted only under public or government pressure.)
Playing Russia’s game
Social media platforms are the centerpiece of Russian state efforts to destroy the common body of knowledge central to Europe’s high quality democracies. Russian military intelligence views the platforms as useful idiots. Facebook, Google, Apple and the like should reconsider their roles as Russian enablers. They should commit to fulfill the traditional obligations of media platforms as truth tellers. That will be a difficult undertaking involving the ex-ante curation of most proposed user feeds in order to broadcast only factual content that meets community standards. (As private enterprises, they enjoy the legal right to ex-ante curate under both American and European law.)
The EU is expected to adopt General Data Protection Regulations in May. That is an opportune moment for EU members to craft a process and schedule requiring social media platforms to meet the traditional responsibilities of other media platforms.
Failure of EU member states to mandate equivalence will make them as complicit as Facebook, Google and Apple in the Russian campaign to destabilize their democracies.
George Tyler is a former US deputy Treasury assistant secretary and senior official at the World Bank. He is the author of What Went Wrong: How the 1% Hijacked the American Middle Class ... And What Other Nations Got Right.