And in the Rest of the World: Real concerns over fake news

Mar 26, 2017 04.00PM |
 

by The Middle Ground

FAKE news doesn’t just spread misinformation and hate – it costs companies money too.

It is predicted that out of $80 billion of digital ad spending in 2017, over $16 billion will be eaten up by problematic content – the placing of advertisements next to unsavoury material, for instance, could hurt instead of help a company’s brand image.

A recent Times of London investigation revealed that YouTube channels promoting hate speech were earning tens of thousands of dollars thanks to ads placed by Google. Volkswagen ads, for instance, were shown on the channel of Wagdi Ghoneim – an extremist who has been banned from entering Britain for promoting terrorism.

As hundreds of companies in the UK pull their ads from Google, the company has been forced to announce new measures that will allow advertisers to avoid displaying their messages next to hate speech and fake news.

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Google’s move demonstrates that ad networks (and tech companies which profit off ads) can no longer be cavalier about where they place clients’ messages, or about the kind of content they allow on their networks. After criticism that it was not doing enough to prevent the spread of fake news, Facebook rolled out a fact-checking alert four days ago (Mar 22), notifying readers if the facts of an article are disputed by reputable sources.

Back home, fake news is causing consternation among local policy-makers and politicians. During the Committee of Supply debates on March 6, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, noted that there is a need to “harmonise legislature for the technological and online space”. He emphasised the G’s position that when online content is “directly targeting Singaporeans”, there is a need to ensure that it is “in line with our community values, including the need to uphold racial and religious harmony”.

Amendments to both the Film and Broadcasting Acts are due to be announced soon. Dr Yaacob indicated that more will be revealed, after consultation with the business community and the public.

This is a whole-of-government concern: In response to the Court of Appeal’s ruling against the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) in which Mindef was found to not qualify as a “person” under Section 15 of the Protection Online Harassment Act, the Ministry of Law issued a statement condemning the “scourge of false information.”

“Everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published and have the true facts brought to public attention,” said a MinLaw spokesman. “The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information.”

In light of the controversy surrounding the spread of fake news, we take a closer look at what countries and tech companies are doing in response to this phenomenon.

 

1. Berlin, Germany – Facebook to potentially face “fake news fines” of up to €50 million (SG$75.5 million)

Image from Wikipedia Commons

Mr Heiko Maas, the German justice minister, has proposed new regulations to crack down on social media companies like Facebook and Twitter for publishing fake news. Social media companies may be fined up to €50 million (SG$75.5 million) if they fail to remove flagged posts.

Social media companies will have to delete offending material within one week. This doesn’t just include fake news, but also illegal content such as hate speech or racist language. Companies will also have to run 24-hour helplines for concerned users.

The proposals are more extensive than previous suggestions to impose €500,000 (SG$755,000) fines on the companies. This is part of a Bill that will be put to the German Parliament in an effort to combat malicious activity and disinformation campaigns online.

The German federal elections are due to be held in September this year. The proposed Bill aims to address fears that online hoaxes could influence the election outcome in favour of populist right-wing parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

 

2. Beijing, China – The “Great Firewall” blocks out non-mainstream news; fake or otherwise

Image from Flickr

In November last year, Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-affiliated tabloid The Global Times weighed in on the fake news debate, saying that the controversy only strengthened the Chinese government’s case for controlling the internet.

In an editorial titled “Western Media’s Crusade Against Facebook”, the Global Times asked pointedly: “So long as the mainstream media is free and open, online rumours would do no harm in the big picture – isn’t that the consistent argument from the West?” It argued that, in trying to curb rumours and fake news, the West was being hypocritical in its push for free speech.

The CCP has long used the “Great Firewall” to limit Chinese citizens’ access to information. Social media sites Facebook and Twitter are blocked in the country, and Google withdrew its services in 2010, protesting the Chinese government’s onerous regulatory demands.

Fake news, however, is not the only thing that is censored. Politically-sensitive content, like references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, is also blocked. Many have criticised the CCP for its authoritarian habits, including artist and civil activist Ai Wei Wei, who has condemned the government for using “brute power to control information”

 

3. Brussels, Belgium – EU has 11-person task force to combat Russian disinformation

Image from Wikipedia Commons

In light of on-going political developments in the European Union (EU) – the French, German and Dutch elections, it is unsurprising that EU leaders are taking action to combat the rise of fake news and anti-EU propaganda aiming to stir up anti-establishment sentiments.

To this end, the EU has a task-force that tackles the problem of fake news in Europe – the East Stratcom. East Stratcom, an 11- person team consisting of diplomats, bureaucrats and former journalists, serves as Europe’s front line against fake news. It was created by EU to combat “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”. In the 16 months since its inception, it has discredited 2,500 stories (many with links to Russia). But it’s facing an uphill task given the volume of fake news.

Apart from the team in Brussels, similar groups to tackle fake news were formed in countries such as Finland and the Czech Republic. Countries are also enhancing online security to address potential hacking attacks and European media outlets are improving fact-checking mechanisms to prevent false reporting.

On top of taking action, EU and its members are also pressurising social media companies such as Facebook to take a stronger position against fake news or face action from Brussels as a consequence.

 

4. California, United States – Facebook partners with fact-checkers to tag “disputed” articles

Image from Flickr

In response to allegations that the phenomenon of Facebook becoming a platform where ‘fake news’ proliferate is in its business interest, Mr Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, asserted that Facebook is also a victim of ‘fake news’ but it is extremely difficult for the site to clamp down on ‘fake news’ as “it’s not always clear what is fake and what isn’t”.

Still, Facebook has taken action to combat ‘fake news’ by rolling out its third-party fact-checking tool which informs users of “disputed content”. The site is partnering with five independent fact-checkers: ABC News, Associated Press, FactCheck.org, Politifact and Snopes.

When a story published is proven to be false, users attempting to share the disputed story will see a red alert stating that the article has been disputed by the relevant independent fact-checkers. Users who clicked on that warning will be greeted with more information about the disputed content.

Even when users choose to ignore the warning and publish the story, there will be another pop-up reiterating that the accuracy of the story has been disputed. When the user clicks “Post anyway”, other users who view the shared story on their timelines will be able to see that the story has been disputed.

On top of independent fact-checkers, the site will pass a story to third parties to fact-check if sufficient numbers of users report a story as fake.

However, the new tool was only made available to a limited number of users. This is unsurprising as Facebook is known to test pilot features on a small group of users before applying them across the entire site.

 

5. California, United States – Google deploys “anti-fake news army”

Image from Pixabay

Google is employing a team of 10,000 content-monitor contractors to examine “fake news” articles, in the hopes of restricting the spread of questionable content.

The Google contractors are not new hires – they are known as quality raters, and have long been assessing search results for accuracy. However, Google is now asking them to qualitatively examine search requests and to rate the results that follow. Content that is “offensive-upsetting”, as Google terms it, will be highlighted. It also aims to identify information that is “demonstrably inaccurate”.

“Offensive-upsetting” content includes material that “promotes hate or violence against a group of people based on criteria including (but not limited to) race or ethnicity, nationality or citizenship.” This may include racial slurs, child abuse, and instructional information on terrorist attacks.

Such content will not be directly removed, or changed. But it will be used to improve underlying search algorithms, so future searches will be more accurate and factual.

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Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin GillCC BY-SA 2.0

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