FML Blog

Fake news on Facebook, pre-election misinformation and extreme surveillance

Friday, November 25, 2016      Future Media Lab.       0

Karin Fleming

(Left) George Sims, Communications Intern at EMMA/the Future Media Lab..


Continuing with our bi-weekly news roundup, George Sims shares the news that caught his eye over the last two weeks. The news round-up is a way for the Future Media Lab. team and members of the Future Media Lab. network to share articles about innovations and developments in the media sector, including references to relevant media policy debates.


Here are George's choices for this week:


“The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy, it goes further than many autocracies.” This tweet by Edward Snowden is a reaction to the recent Investigatory Powers Act, which passed last Thursday with minimal media attention and very little resistance from the UK Parliament. The bill in itself allows massive-scale collection of the public’s personal data by British Security Agencies - although the illegality of the act has not prevented them from doing it up until now - all of which is then shared with the US’s National Security Agency (NSA). Ewen MacAskill from the Guardian highlights the danger that this represents for a free press environment: “One of the negative aspects of the legislation is that it fails to provide adequate protection for journalists’ sources, which could discourage whistleblowing.” This will be an important element to next year’s EU-level discussions in relation to a possible “whistleblower initiative”.


The European Commission is struggling to find an adequate replacement for Commissioner Günther Oettinger, who up until now was in charge of the digital portfolio and has been promoted to Kristalina Georgieva’s soon-to-be vacant position as Commission vice president for the budget and human resources. The Commission seems to be struggling to find someone qualified for Oettinger's job, and while some names have been mentioned and some rumours spread, there is still no clear indication as to who will step in to replace him. Commissioner Oettinger has played a decisive role in the copyright reform and the publishers’ right, so publishers will be watching very closely when the time comes to replace him.


Facebook is developing a censorship tool in order to access China’s market of over a billion potential users. The social media company is banned in China because of the government’s strict censorship policies, but Mark Zuckerberg has recently admitted to having a team working on a sort of suppression tool that would allow Chinese users to access a limited version of Facebook in accordance to the government’s wishes. At a question-and-answer session with employees, Mr. Zuckerberg was quoted as saying: “It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation.” A controversial statement for a CEO who claims to be an advocate of free speech in the USA, but then again, an untapped market of over 1.3 billion people must be quite a tempting prospect for the head of a user information-based mega-company.


Facebook has restricted content in other countries before, such as Pakistan, Russia and Turkey, in keeping with the typical practice of American internet companies that generally comply with government requests to block certain content after it is posted.” Paul Mozur, New York Times.


The “attention economy is rapidly transforming itself into a misinformation economy”, according to Director of European Journalism Observatory Stephan Russ-Mohl. By avoiding the simplistic discourse of blaming social media for all the traditional media’s ills, Russ-Mohl enumerates a number of important and less-mentioned reasons behind the public’s deteriorating trust in the media.


Quoting Uwe Krüger (University of Leipzig), he states that many “serious” journalists and newsrooms are failing to see the difference between a small number of right-wing extremists and a large number of slightly right-leaning citizens. By generally dismissing any ideas that are remotely different to their own middle-class, liberal, educated and politically correct views, many journalists are actually losing their important place within the public discourse, leaving more space for algorithms, bots and social media echo chambers to affect mainstream political thought.


Facebook's response to “Fake news”: Since the US election results there has been much outcry in Western media about the nefarious effects of “fake news”, with claims that content that formerly would never have been read or believed is now being catalysed by social media to a point where many are not making the distinction between the “fake” stories and the “real” or “fact-checked” ones. Facebook in particular has come under fire for a number of stories with little or no factual basis that went viral on the blue news feed shortly before the US election.


While Mark Zuckerberg claims to be no “arbiter of truth”, his company will be making efforts to limit fake news going viral on the news feed, sparking the debate as to whether algorithms can be adapted to such a job or not. Although the US election result has come as a bit of a wake-up call for many journalists in the US, the effect of social media on an election process is nothing new in other parts of the world. Uganda, Chad, the Congo (DRC) and even Ghana have recently banned the use of Twitter and Facebook before elections, while Filipino political analyst Mr. Heydarian claims that “Facebook hasn’t led to empowerment of the average citizen, but empowerment of professional propagandists, fringe elements and conspiracy theorists, (…) voices that were lurking in the shadows are now at the centre of the public discourse” in reference to his country’s recent election of the populist Rodrigo Duterte.


With a presidential election coming up in 2017, le Monde’s Décodeurs have developed a “Decoding machine” enabling the general public to fact-check politicians’ claims themselves in order to avoid political misinformation. They are also compiling a list in which they rank publications according to truthfulness. Both these strategies are just small arms of le Monde’s broader vision to automatise fact-checking.


Empirical Media have published a report entitled “ Why Chat Matters as a News Medium that was presented at the Global Editors’ Network (GEN) Summit in Vienna this summer. The report highlights the growing importance of Chatbots as a new medium for news publishers. Aside from allowing publishers to deliver highly personalised content to their users, an added bonus for the publishing company comes in the form of more personalised – and thus more lucrative – advertising possibilities, due to the large amount of personal information acquired during the process.

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