This week, Facebook launched an advertising campaign in the U.K. seeking to help the public discern fake news online. The move, which precedes parliamentary elections in Britain, is seen as an attempt to curb the spread of false stories over Facebook ahead of critical political events.
Drew Margolin, a professor of communication at Cornell University who studies the way people communicate online and the role of accountability, credibility, and legitimacy within social networks, says that despite these attempts, Facebook is not ready to compromise one of its core principles: the freedom of people to share information.
“My overall impression is that Facebook has begun to take these issues seriously and give them their attention. They are no longer ignoring the problem or hoping it goes away, which is good.
“However, they still haven’t committed to a set of principles or ideals that articulate clear priorities. This leaves them to fight each crisis whack-a-mole style – fake news, videos showing violent crimes etc. They wait for a public outcry and then try to address the specific problem.
“The core issue is: are they willing to let any content be shared by anyone with anyone, or are there going to be restrictions and censorship? If the latter, they need to lay out what the rules are, how they will be enforced, and commit to enforcing them in line with specific principles. For example, traditional news media tend to draw the line at information that is true or at least verifiable.
“The Motion Picture Association of America has a rating system and procedures for flagging content. In both of these cases, these institutions explicitly subordinate ‘freedom’ to speak and share information to something they value even more.
“Facebook is not ready to take that step yet, and may never do so.
“The freedom of users to share what they want may be too important to the essence of Facebook. But if that is the case, half-hearted attempts to gently censor content only undermine their position in the public’s mind, as the operative principle then appears to be ‘freedom to share unless lots of people complain.’ This will always be viewed as arbitrary and biased.”