The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth
Two things caught my eye the other week: first, Twitter made the headlines because of its failure to ban an American conspiracy theorist from its platform, whose latest phantasm was a claim that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a giant hoax. Allegedly, Twitter could not identify any infringements o1 its rules. (No — unfortunately, this is not fake news). Other tech giants, including YouTube and Facebook, had made at least a half-hearted attempt at deleting the most egregious examples of his rankings. Secondly, Michiko Kakutani, a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic and formerly of the New York Times, published a book rather aptly entitled The Death of Truth, in which she endeavors to explore how truth became an endangered species.
The fact that politicians use lies and deliberate disinformation as tools for seeking or maintaining power is nothing new: during the Cold War, this was called propaganda, and who can forget Iraq’s infamous but non-existent weapons of mass destruction? This carries on today on both sides of the Atlantic and, no, I will not mention Brexit or the sides of busses in this context. What is new is the way in which social media has allowed lies and disinformation to be spread without the filter mechanism of an editorial function that pays some form of regard to factuality, science, ethics, integrity, decency and shared societal values. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley would turn in their graves at the thought of their worst dystopian fears very fast becoming a 21st century reality.
Technology companies face a balancing act and will often be accused of censorship and of eroding freedom of expression when they try to act on take-down requests citing hate speech. I disagree with both allegations as a reason for inaction. The German constitution had the foresight against the experience of history to get this right when it enshrined the principle of the wehrhafte Demokratie: democratic societies are entitled to defend themselves against those who seek to undermine them. What happens if they fail to do so is aptly highlighted in another new book by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, entitled How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future.
Looking on the bright side, momentum is clearly gathering behind the realisation that the direction in which we are going as an information society is not acceptable as the new normal. Here in the UK, the House of Commons DCMS Committee has published an interim report on disinformation and fake news. The report’s recommendations to government include placing greater legal liability on technology companies for harmful and illegal content, including as to material that they should have been able to identify as problematic. The report further suggests that a new category of tech company should be recognised that is more than an online platform (a term which implies that the platform operator bears no responsibility for content and behind which tech companies therefore love to hide), even if this falls somewhat short of making them a publisher in the traditional sense. And there is the suggestion that a global code of ethics for social media should be agreed and a set of standards introduced to indicate the level of verification of news on a website.
In the meantime, the EU has also been active and, following a recent European Commission consultation and report on fake news and online Misinformation, in July 2018, a working group published a first draft of an EU Code of Practice to tackle online disinformation. The final version of the Code of Practice is expected by the end of September 2015. It remains to be seen whether self-regulation is the answer to the problem but I am glad already that there is a consensus now that we have a problem that needs to be resolved through more transparency, diversity and accountability, and that it is time that we set rules and boundaries for tech companies and not the other way around.
This article was published in Discover Germany in the September 2018 issue.