Facebook’s fake news fact-checking alert will be the saviour of the mainstream media

Social media’s battle against fake news will challenge the vile attempts by populists to position the mainstream media as dishonest and journalists as part and parcel of the elite

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The Independent Online

Yesterday Facebook started to roll out a fake news alert which will flag news stories that are disputed by fact-checkers. These fact-checkers need to be official signatories of the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). This code highlights non-partisanship and fairness, transparency of sources, funding and methodology, as well as a commitment to open and honest corrections.

In a separate move, YouTube owners Google, when faced with a backlash from major advertisers, were prompted to act as it was revealed that fascists, fundamentalist Islamists, rape apologists and other unsavory users of their platform were receiving a part of the online advertising revenue that was appearing alongside their extreme and highly problematic content.

These are just two of many examples which demonstrate that the common perception of social media companies as neutral intermediaries who cannot be held responsible for the content travelling on their network is no longer tenable. As Martin Sorrell, head of advertising agency WPP, also pointed out recently, social media companies “are media companies and have the same responsibilities as any other media company. They cannot masquerade as technology companies" any longer. This observation has serious implications for platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google/YouTube.

They need to face up to the fact that as media companies they have a set of social, democratic and ethical responsibilities which amongst others require the development of a set of editorial guidelines as well as the need to intervene at the level of content in case of ethical transgressions. To give a blunt example, while the free speech doctrine in the US might protect utterances of hate speech or the spreading of fake news, this does not mean that media companies condone this or enable this, on the contrary, the large majority of media companies will see it as their democratic responsibility to combat hate speech and fake news. Hence, if Facebook, Twitter and You Tube are media companies we might ask ourselves the question whether racist hate speech and fake news, which contravenes ethical and democratic principles, is something that should be allowed to freely circulate on these platforms without being contested or taken down.

The main argument that social media companies use to not act against hate speech or fake news is that they cannot possibly control the zillions of messages and videos that are posted on their platforms. The fact-checking case and Google being forced to act to protect their advertising income show, however, that it is possible to do something and also that it is their democratic duty to do so. At the same time, it is fair to say that combatting hate speech and fake news is not the sole responsibility of the social media companies; they will need help with this, from the users of their platforms flagging unethical and problematic content as well as from trusted mainstream media organisations and journalists to fact-check fake news.

From this perspective, combatting hate speech and fake news might also represent a lifeline to trusted mainstream media organisations who are increasingly faced with a legitimacy crisis. The fight against fake news and anti-democratic forces will, in my view, be central to the rebuilding of the tarnished public trust in journalism. Only by fulfilling their civic and democratic duties and by being at the forefront of the battle against anti-democratic discourses and fake news can the vile attempts by populists to position mainstream media as dishonest and journalists as part and parcel of the elite, be truly challenged and turned around.

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