Controlling Information

The dream of the free spread of information may be in jeopardy. Recent issues with “fake news” have raised to the public consciousness the problem of our own inability or unwillingness to critically consider information. Because we cannot be bothered to seriously consider the implications and the validity of various news stories, companies and governments are stepping in to make our lives a little easier by separating the “real” news from the “fake” news.

Facebook announced on April 6, 2017, that it will be assisting users in identifying fake news and is also beginning development of software that will sift out the “fake” news from our newsfeeds. Although Facebook’s newsroom makes no mention of Germany’s recent bill that would fine Facebook for not allowing customers to report fake news, it comes only days after Germany decided to move forward with the bill. This is concerning though because even though Germany is suggesting that filtering fake-news will be crowdsourced, implementation is still left to the private companies. But this does not even address concerns of any curb on free speech.

Adam Mosseri, VP, News Feed at Facebook stated, ” We cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves — it’s not feasible given our scale, and it’s not our role.” But, we should give pause to an organization that holds the keys to the gate of our portal of large-scale sharing and connecting. While none of us outside of Facebook’s Free Basic internet service is forced to use Facebook, many people still use it and other social media outlets for news.

These moves towards shifting out “fake” news for us should give us all pause. Because private companies can be required to sift out the “fake” news, but can they be forced to share the algorithm that decides it? How will companies and governments determine what is fake? Will companies be overly conservative in removing “fake” news because it deviates from mainstream news outlets? Can this be abused by governments whose legal systems allow for a government restriction of free speech (every government but the United States)?

Many of us will probably not even notice the shift. But there could potentially be very serious long-term consequences allowing companies and governments to take a paternalistic approach to deciding what is news and what is fiction. While this might simply mirror the editorial license of newspapers of the past, in a new age of digital information, should we continue the practices that allowed yellow journalism controlled by a few powerful actors steer the nation and the course of history?

It is up to us to decide where we get our news and to consider the long-term consequences of these recent changes. I am not sure what this means for all of us. Or if in the grand scheme it will even matter. But, no seems to be noticing these changes and, while it may seem inconsequential now, it could be a big deal later.


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