Just days after the American election, Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said “I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.” Yet with the German parliamentary election happening in September this year, the social network is introducing new tools to counter the spread of fabricated news stories in Germany, which mostly blackens Angela Merkel. In a similar fashion, the Czech government has very recently set up “anti-fake news” units, scrutinising disinformation and attempting to counter it.
In the case of Germany, German Facebook users will be able to flag potentially false stories, which will then be passed to third-party fact-checkers and, if found unreliable, be flagged as “disputed” and appear lower in users’ news feeds. This is incredibly important in a country that Lutz Helm, from the website Hoaxmap tracking fake news in Germany, argues is seeing a “crisis of trust towards established media channels”. This leads to a small minority of people trying to find alternative sources, but instead of looking for proper, investigative journalism, they fall for obscure news site and conspiracy theories. Contrasting Zuckerberg’s words, these stories do definitely influence the way people vote, and are thus seriously dangerous for politics and democracy. The latter is especially the case in the Czech Republic, with Czech news-sites almost certainly managed by the Kremlin trying to discourage people from participating in democratic processes by providing negative views of the EU and the NATO, and democracy in general.
Even as Zuckerberg continues to maintain Facebook is not a media company – while 66% of Facebook users get their news from the website – and denies the influence of Facebook in spreading fake news, measures like those taken on German Facebook, as well as independently in the Czech Republic, are steps in the right direction. While one might call editorial judgement from Facebook with regards to news stories published on their website censorship, remember that Facebook already censors heavily, deleting every photograph with a female nipple on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook). To quote Hannah Jane Parkinson in The Guardian: “All journalism, if it’s a decision of what to publish and not to publish, of what stories are worth pursuing and which aren’t, is, if you want to call it such, censorship.” The influence of fake news makes its censorship absolutely necessary, and Facebook should take more action in doing so.