Tech

‘Drive to combat fake news could give tech firms more muscle’

Google, Facebook and Twitter have pledged to work together with other tech companies to fight the spread of fake news online by signing up to an EU code of conduct.

Here are two experts on each side of the debate.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton, a senior research fellow at IPPR and co-author of a recent report on digital platforms, thinks it’s a good idea:

Laurie Laybourn-Langton, a senior research fellow at IPPR and co-author of a recent report on digital platforms
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Laurie Laybourn-Langton wants to see a more radical approach

Only changing the business model of tech giants will change their behaviour.

The summer has been a mixed bag for the tech giants. On the one hand, some became trillion dollar companies and their owners are now the richest people in history. On the other, the Cambridge Analytica scandal has stoked fears over user privacy, the impact on our democracy, and the platform’s record on spotting and reacting to false or misleading information.

It is simply unremarkable that digital platforms have become a home for fake news and a medium through which to more effectively target and manipulate voters. This is because data accumulation and analysis to build tools of manipulation for profit is foundational to the business model of large digital platforms, something which anyone in or near the industry knows.

The code of conduct presented by tech firms to the EU is their latest attempt to manage a perception problem they fear is graduating from political backlash to policy response. In the UK, this summer saw Sajid Javid warn of tech firms’ record on child safety and Jeremy Corbyn highlight the oversized role of platforms in our consumption of news.

A code of conduct gives the appearance of change while allowing the platform business model to remain untouched.

Ultimately, it is as ineffective as previous attempts to rein in the power of the tech giants, including fining Facebook a few minutes’ revenue after the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The wealth, power and reach of the tech giants into so many areas of our social and economic lives shows that a more radical approach is needed.

Structural reform to address the platform business model is needed, including rethinking the ownership and governance of data and the underlying, increasingly ubiquitous digital infrastructure of our economy and society.

Whereas today the digital economy is dominated large monopolies, we need to move towards a “digital commonwealth” where data is a collective resource that drives equitable innovation, and digital infrastructure is a public good.

Charlie Parker, researcher in digital democracy for The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, says it’s a bad idea:

Charlie Parker, researcher in digital democracy for The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, says it's a bad idea
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Charlie Parker says the move could backfire

In an era of online misinformation and data scandals, the words “big tech” and “trustworthiness” are rarely used synonymously.

So it seems strange that EU bosses are so eager to trust social media and search engine giants with more responsibility over our digital democracy – threatening them with regulation if they fail to properly curate the content we see online every day.

Ahead of the European Union elections in June 2019, the EU has given Facebook, Google and Twitter a practically unachievable three-month deadline to fix the fake news problem.

Responding to the threat of restrictive new laws, the tech companies joined forces to propose a new code of conduct that will supposedly help people make informed decisions based on their online experiences.

Their plan: pump money into new technologies that develop “indicators of trustworthiness”, make diverse views more visible and prioritise “authentic information”.

But in doing this, they are likely to cause more harm than good with proposals that merely satisfy a knee jerk demand for change from politicians.

The effectiveness of the code of conduct will be assessed by EU officials at the end of the year, putting enormous pressure on tech firms to solve the fake new “crisis” fast.

Many initiatives that have already tried to tackle the spread of misinformation have so far been unsuccessful. Adding time pressure makes the already complex task much more difficult.

For example, algorithms designed to expose users to alternative opinions and break echo chambers can often have a “backfire effect” and actually reinforce an individual’s world view – rather than change their mind.

It turns out that constantly clogging up a news feed with views that berate a user’s core beliefs – selected by Silicon Valley – does little to enrich the battle of ideas. Nor is it going save Europe’s democracy.

The EU drive to combat fake news might seem like a crackdown on unruly tech companies, but it could actually give them more muscle.


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