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Op-Ed: Canada’s PM Trudeau demands Facebook address ‘fake news’ problem

Trudeau’s meeting with Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg

Back in November Trudeau had told Sheryl Sandberg chief operating officer of Facebook that he was concerned that the company was not doing enough to address the problem of misleading information on Facebook.

Trudeau is said to have made the comments during a meeting with Sandberg at the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum in Vietnam last November. The source said that the conversation was constructive. Trudeau was particularly concerned about identifying the origin of partisan “news”, posts or ads.

Neither the PM’s office nor Facebook would discuss the specifics of the meeting. However, Kevin Chan Facebook’s policy chief in Canada said in a statement to the Star newspaper: “We stand with the lawmakers around the world, including in Canada, in their efforts to protect the democractic process.”

Facebook has been under increasing pressure for allowing false information to masquerade as legitimate journalism. Russia has been accused of using ads on Facebook to influence the recent U.S. election that saw Donald Trump win over Hillary Clinton.

Facebook has also faced criticism for lack of transparency as to who is buying ads appearing on it.

The Trudeau government and social media

Trudeau appears to be concerned that there will be material on Facebook designed to influence the upcoming 2019 Federal election.

The federal government, including Trudeau and his cabinet ministers, issue constant Twitter posts, Instagram statements, and announcements on Facebook. At the same time, the government worries about the use of these platforms by opponents and foreign countries to influence Canadian elections using social media.

CSIS concerns

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that deals with cybersecurity and espionage has warned that it is quite likely that outside groups will attempt to influence the elections.

CSIS even held a workshop for researchers that talked about the possible responses to “information warfare” and disinformation in the fall of 2017. Elections Canada has already taken steps to ensure cybersecurity. Global Affairs has also been taking an interest in the fake news phenomena.

Katrina Gould, Democratic Institutions Minister claimed that social media have plenty of work to do to address the problems of “cybersecurity, hate speech, and the dissemination of misinformation.” Gould said: “We encourage all social media platforms to think critically about their current practices and how they can create spaces for informed public dialogue.”

Facebook’s response

Facebook points out that it already employs 10,000 people working on “safety and security” globally and plans to increase the number to 20,000.

The company also launched a “Canadian Election Integrity” initiative late in 2017. It provides a guide to MPs, candidates and parties to prevent “mischief” on line and gives a direct link to Facebook’s security team. The company claims it is also providing more transparency as to who buys ads and who they are targeting.

Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert told the Canadian House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that it had deleted thousands of fake accounts in the run-up to 2017 elections in the UK, France, and Germany. Many politicians have little faith that tech and social media companies will address the issues themselves.

Rise of tech media giants creates economic and other issues

Carolyn Wilkins, senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada said that the rise of giant social media companies has resulted in a relentless appetite for users’ data. This raises questions about privacy of the data, security and also intellectual property.
Wilkins said: “If user data are an important source of monopoly rents in the digital age, how should we regulate who owns the data and how they’re shared?. We’re going to need to judge wisely when it’s best to use public policy tools to manage the risks and when it’s best to let private enterprise work its magic.”

The problem of “fake news” Facebook versus Twitter

There are many views of what constitutes fake news. President Trump appears to consider any report fake news if it is critical of him and his administration and he rejects it as not true. Wikipedia describes fake news as follows: Fake news is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media.[1] Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically,[2][3][4] often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership, online sharing, and Internet click revenue. In the latter case, it is similar to sensational online “clickbait” headlines and relies on advertising revenue generated from this activity, regardless of the veracity of the published stories.[2] In

However, what some might consider fake news others might consider basically true if somewhat biased. In propaganda there may be many true statements. Russian ads meant to divide Americans often contain true but perhaps exaggerated accounts of race relations in the US. To expect social media companies to filter out fake news will just increase the power of the powerful to the detriment of free speech and repression of viewpoints that don’t fit in with the mainstream views.

Facebook takes the view it has the responsibility to intervene to block fake news. In contrast Twitter has decided that it will not be an arbiter of what is true or of fake news.

The Facebook view

As noted earlier, Facebook already has thousands filtering out fake news from Facebook.

It has also announced a plan to crowdsource credibility ratings for news outlets. It has assembled a team of fact checkers in Italy just ahead of parliamentary elections there next month. Before the French presidential election last year in France, Facebook took out full page newspapers ads that featured tips on identifying fake news.

The Twitter view

Nick Pickles head of Twitter’s public policy for the UK said in testimony in Washington said: We are not the arbiters of truth. We are not going to remove content based on the fact this is untrue. The one strength that Twitter has is it’s a hive of journalists, of citizens, of activists correcting the record, correcting information.”

Pickles was among executives from Twitter, Facebook, and Google who fielded questions about fake news at George Washington University. The UK held its first ever public hearing outside the UK.

Pickles also said: “I don’t think technology companies should be deciding during an election what is true and what is not true, which is what you’re asking us to do. I think that’s a very important principle.”

Accounts can still be cut off at Twitter if they violate terms of use. Trump seems to stay on even though many argue he constantly violates the terms of use.

Greater transparency as to who places ads and who is targeted seems to me a laudable goal and would help the reader assess the likely veracity of a post.

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