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Opinion: Germany shouldn't force social media firms to be arbiters of truth

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Opinion: Germany shouldn't force social media firms to be arbiters of truth
Photo: DPA
10:28 CET+01:00
Germany's efforts to punish social media companies when "fake news" is shared on their platforms will hurt tech start-ups while fueling the anger of conspiracy theorists, argue tech analysts Nick Wallace and Alan McQuinn.

Amid growing global concern about the impact of so-called “fake news,” Bundestag SPD chair Thomas Oppermann recently announced forthcoming legislation that would require social media platforms, such as Facebook, to delete posts that meet the law's definition of “fake news”. Under the proposed law, companies would be required to create “legal protection offices” in Germany that would screen complaints and remove offending content within 24 hours, or face fines of up to €500,000.

The difficulty of identifying fake news combined with the threat of fines would impose significant costs on social media companies, particularly startups, and likely result in the removal of legitimate articles, such as satirical pieces. Fortunately, more effective and less burdensome alternatives are available to help tackle fake news.

Fake news is a problem, but it is a mistake to attribute it to social media. False stories have been published as long as there has been a medium to publish them on, from the anti-Semitic fabrications of a Russian Czar to misleading claims about the dangers of vaccination and the wonders of homeopathy (which German social health insurance funded until quite recently). Lies and propaganda find their strength not in modern technology, but in human credulity.

This is not to say that social media companies have no responsibility for their platforms. Most sites enforce community standards on the content users share. For example, Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft, and the European Commission created a code of conduct to combat hate speech.

Moreover, social media sites already remove content that is unlawful under local laws. In 2015, Facebook restricted access to 554 pieces of content in Germany that involved hate speech or Holocaust denial, both illegal in the country. However, fake news itself is not illegal in Germany, and it is troubling that policymakers would outlaw the distribution of otherwise lawful content.

Requiring social media companies to police the truth of articles shared on social media would be an impractical task because of the ambiguity inherent in determining what is true. For example, should Facebook remove an article if it contains errors from sloppy reporting or information later found to be inaccurate?

And what about the satire in publications like Private Eye, The Daily Mash, and The Onion? They all run stories that are not true to make their readers laugh and think, and part of satirical articles' fun is seeing people fall for them. Moreover, stories with no basis in fact can later turn out to be true: In 1879, it would have been natural to doubt Listerine's claim that its mouthwash could prevent gonorrhea, but a 2016 study suggested there may actually be some truth to it.

The proposed law will also significantly raise costs for social media companies, hurting consumers and stifling innovation. Moreover, establishing special offices and screening complaints could be unfeasible for startup platforms that lack the large players' resources to manually sift through the nuances of a multitude of online articles. Furthermore, threatening platforms with fines will pressure them to err on the side of caution and remove more than the law requires.

A better option is to step back and allow more effective voluntary efforts to address the problem. For example, Facebook recently announced partnerships with third-party news agencies and fact-checking groups - such as ABC News, the Associated Press, Politifact and Snopes - to identify “disputed content” for users and provide links that explain why an article has been flagged. These efforts debunk and discredit fake news without sacrificing the free speech values that have allowed social media sites to thrive, leaving users free to make up their own minds.

In addition, companies could begin efforts to starve outlets that peddle fake news from receiving advertising revenue, thus removing their financial incentives. For example, over 140 fake news websites that created sensational stories on social media about the 2016 US election, such as the innocuously named USADailyPolitics.com, were developed by teenagers in Macedonia to garner attention on US social media websites and generate ad revenue.

None of these measures require the direct intervention of government to be effective. On the contrary, a government mandate may backfire by emboldening conspiracy theorists who could claim the German government was suppressing “the truth.”

If, however, the German government decides to go down this path and forces social media companies to delete fake news from their platforms, it should restrict this policy to German users and not demand that social media sites delete content from those that reside outside its borders. That way, the German government can limit the impact of its domestic policies on other countries and avoid unfairly forcing companies to be caught in the middle of conflicting laws.

Nick Wallace (@NickDelNorte) is a Brussels-based senior policy analyst with the Center for Data Innovation, a data policy think tank. Alan McQuinn (@AlanMcQuinn) is a research analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a science and tech policy think tank. The Center and ITIF are affiliates.

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