Facebook should not be the “truth police for the entire world”, a senior official at the social media company has told an international hearing on fake news in Dublin.
Monika Bickert, Vice President of Content Policy at Facebook, made the comment amid sustained criticisms of social media at the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, held in the Seanad chamber today.
Ms Bickert, based at Facebook’s Menlo Park Headquarters in California, told the committee the no company should be expected to tackle fake news and disinformation alone and that regulation “could set baselines for what is prohibited and require companies to build systems for address harmful content”.
She reiterated Facebook’s stance on political advertising: that it does not fact-check direct speech by politicians that features in ads.
“The fact that we don't think that Facebook should be the truth police for the entire world, and we should not determine for citizens what they shall and shall not see terms of truth from our politicians, that does not mean that we dismiss the importance of combating misinformation,” she said.
Ms Bickert said the company goes after fake accounts which are disproportionately more likely to be sharing disinformation, disrupts the financial incentive to spreading fake news, and uses fact-checkers to flag false claims.
“We're not the truth police for the world and we do not remove content simply for being false outside of a couple of small areas, like if there is an immediate threat to safety and a safety partner has confirmed for us that there's an imminent risk of harm, or if somebody misrepresents voting times locations and processes.
“But generally speaking, when we use those third-party fact-checking organisations, we don't remove content that they say is false. What we do is we mark that as having been rated false by the fact-checker and we put the information from the fact-checker next to it,” she said.
“We think that it is not appropriate for Facebook to be deciding for the world what is true or false and we think that politicians should have the ability to interact with their audiences, so long as they're following our ads policies. But again we're very open to how together, we could come up with regulation that could define and tackle these issues,” she said.
A number of contributors were critical of Facebook in particular, and said its business model is at the heart of the problem with disinformation and fake news.
“The current business model is the root cause of the problems you are trying to address. Its toxicity is unrelenting,” Jim Balsillie, Chairman of the Centre for International Governance Innovation said.
He said the current social media business model needs to be outlawed and replaced with “responsible monetisation”, such as subscription-based models.
“Strategic regulations are needed to cut off the head of this snake. Anything less means governments will be perpetually coping with its slithery consequences, turning policymaking into a losing game of regulatory whack-a-mole.”
Several contributors to the hearing outlined their concerns for behavioural advertising in which micro-targeted content is presented to users based on their browsing history, and its implications for political advertising and disinformation.
Marc Rotenberg, President of Electronic Privacy Information Center which has previously brought cases against Facebook to the US Federal Trade Commission, outlined his group’s history of action against the company on personal data complaints.
He said the FTC has failed to impose effective data protection measures against Facebook, and called for an outright ban on behavioural advertising that micro-targets users based on their browsing history.
“My message to you today is simple. You must act, you cannot wait. You cannot wait 10 years or even a year to take action against this company, the terms of the GDPR must be enforced against Facebook, and they should be enforced now.
“Facebook should be required to divest of WhatsApp, not because of a great scheme to break up big tech, but because the company violated its commitments to protect the data of WhatsApp users as a condition of the acquisition,” he said.
“I certainly think the business model needs to be changed. I think in this moment, literally today, Facebook should be prohibited from using the platform for political advertising,” he said.
Congressman David Cicilline, Chairman of the United States House of Representatives’ Sub-Committee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, said Facebook has become both a dominant communications network while also running an ad-based business model.
He described this as “lethal for our democracy”.
“There was a reason AT&T was never allowed to surveil the conversations of a phone user to sell them ads," he said.