Publish and be damned: Online media platforms must be regulated

DOES Facebook put strong, educated, liberal women out front to hide its real intent behind them? asks Victoria White. 

Publish and be damned: Online media platforms must be regulated

I couldn’t help thinking that, as I watched head of content policy for Europe, Middle East, and Africa, Siobhan Cummiskey, and head of public policy, Niamh Sweeney, yesterday, addressing the Oireachtas Committee on Communications.

These women have the best and the highest qualifications, like Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, the woman who “leant in” and told us all to do the same.

If this is Facebook’s secret policy, it is brilliant. Because though Niamh Sweeney repeated that the training outsourced by Facebook to Cpl, which was filmed under-cover by Channel 4 for its Dispatches programme, did not reflect Facebook’s “underlying values”, I don’t think there are any.

And that’s what separates Facebook from other private companies that sell information and rely on advertising revenue, such as this newspaper.

Traditional media outlets are informed by decades of self-regulation and then regulated by law. Facebook, too, is a publisher and should have all the responsibilities, and be subject to all the regulations, which apply to publishers.

The UK House of Commons’ interim report into ‘Disinformation and Fake News’, published this week, argues that there should be a third category for information sources such as Facebook, making them neither publishers nor neutral platforms. None of the distinctions they found between online platforms and traditional publishers holds up for me.

It’s not significant that Facebook does not commission its material. The letters this newspaper publishes are not solicited, either, any more than most of the calls to chat shows.

Despite the fact that such content isn’t commissioned, the publisher’s or broadcaster’s head is on the block if it’s inaccurate or hurts innocent people.

The fact that Facebook is free to the user should not impact on its responsibilities. The platform should be bound by all the strictures we traditional publishers face. Those strictures are as tight as Houdini’s. In this country and in the UK, most of us are bound by our own professional code of conduct, as members of the National Union of Journalism, which has existed since 1936.

This means lots of things, including that we don’t publish information which is not true, we don’t intrude on people’s grief, we make a clear distinction between news and opinion, we take care not to incite hatred, we don’t take financial inducements to promote services or products, and we don’t go undercover, unless in cases of overwhelming public interest, such as Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on Facebook.

Since 2007, we have had our own Press Council in Ireland, which holds members, such as this newspaper, to the highest ethical standards.

Journalists sometimes fail to uphold these standards and that’s why it’s important there has been, since 2008, a press ombudsman to deal with complaints.

The very existence of the regulated media is threatened by publishers like Facebook, who abide by no rules worthy of the name and take little or no responsibility for the content they publish.

Facebook should be bound by all the strictures that traditional publishers, like newspapers, face

The company attempts to absolve itself of responsibility by presenting itself as a neutral platform. The interim report on ‘Disinformation and Fake News’ claimed that Facebook consistently chose to avoid answering the commission’s written and oral questions, “to the point of obfuscation”, and, to date, Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has steadfastly refused to be questioned by the committee.

They rubbished Facebook’s claims that it should not thoroughly mediate its content, because, as the company’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, put it, “our community would not want us, a private company, to be the arbiter of truth.”

Neither would Irish Examiner readers want its editors to be “the arbiter of truth”. This newspaper presents facts and a range of carefully labelled opinion. Editorials set out the stance of a newspaper and are thus useful to readers, who may agree or disagree. It is clear that the only ‘arbiter of truth’ is the reader. On a platform like Facebook, both the arbiter and his truth are hidden.

The idea that a free-for-all platform can be a force for good is utopian and cynical at the same time. Such a platform will be manipulated by those with the deepest pockets and they are unlikely to be striving for world peace. It will also come to be dominated by the outrage and hatred which were seen being carefully protected by Facebook — not Cpl, the company running the training for Facebook and now being saddled with most of the blame for the outrages in the Dispatches programme.

Facebook employs engineers who, as evidence to the House of Commons put it, “know a lot more about how your brain works than you do.” They design ‘algorithms’ to make sure you stay interested in their platform, because it is by targeting you with advertising that Facebook made $40bn last year.

They know your location, your age, your social connections, their locations, your interests, your sexual orientation, your political outlook, and much more besides.

That is why Facebook is such a useful tool, if you want to sway a political system. We know that it was by using information gleaned from, and not adequately protected by, Facebook that Cambridge Analytica helped Donald Trump to victory in the US presidential election. We do not yet know exactly how the platform might have been used to promote Brexit, but we should be keenly interested, because any regime that is interested in destabilising Europe will be likely to focus on the issue of the Irish border.

How worried we should be is underlined by the tragic influence of Facebook on the Rohingya pogrom in Burma. The UN has named Facebook as being responsible for inciting hatred against the Rohingya Muslim minority, through its ‘Free Basics’, no-cost mobile phone package.

The company could not show the House of Commons committee that it had since done anything to stop the spread of this hatred. The report calls this

a further example of Facebook failing to take responsibility for the misuse of its platform

I hadn’t watched half of Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, ‘Inside Facebook: Secrets of a Social Network’, which first aired on July 17, before I deleted my account. I don’t want my name associated with a publisher who left a video of a toddler being beaten up by his step-father on its platform for six years.

We must take urgent action to protect our democracy. Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley is right when he says we need a seriously-resourced digital safety commissioner to regulate online media platforms in Ireland and the platforms need to pay for it.

There would be less call to make Facebook pay a levy to fund Irish journalism if Facebook were forced to adopt the same standards as the newspaper you are reading and to compete, not by way of anorexic children, racist hatred and bloody cuts of self-harm, but by way of quality content.

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