More proof of the huge role played by social media in spreading dangerous misinformation occurred last week, when the government of Singapore was forced to order Facebook and Twitter to publish a correction on an issue related to Covid-19.
It started with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeting that a new form of the virus that causes Covid-19 had come to Singapore.
Moreover, he said that particular form of the virus was especially harmful to children, and called for a ban on flights between Singapore and India.
The context, as always, is important. Kejriwal, like any member of the political opposition in any country, is probably interested in drawing as much attention as possible to himself, in order to widen his public outreach.
This is the main problem with social media: the surest way to spread an idea, be it true or false, is via this medium. And, the more shocking the item that is published, the further it will travel — regardless of its accuracy.
In this case, the remedy was relatively easy. Facebook and Twitter were ordered, under Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, to issue corrections.
The two social networks confirmed they had received the order and said they complied as per the local law, according to an article by Reuters.
Fake news business model
But this is a recurring issue with digital media giants. They claim they are only social networks, or only technology companies — in other words, not publishers — but are happy to take the advertising money that comes in on the back of the the content they publish.
And as advertising is still generally chasing the “clicks” – the number of people clicking on a link – these digital companies have little incentive to fight misinformation, fake news or disinformation, if they are read and shared by many people.
This “business model” – if it can be called that – has almost brought democracy to an end.
It has encouraged the spreading of rumours, falsehoods and incendiary statements that have facilitated the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and, in the US, the election of populist Donald Trump as president.
Some of the large digital companies adhere to a voluntary code of practice on combatting misinformation, but it is clearly not working. Regulation is what is needed.
This week, the European Commission will publish a proposal to try to tackle the issue, according to a report by Reuters.
Online platforms will be required to tighten the eligibility criteria and processes for reviewing content for monetisation.
Companies that are placing advertising online will be obliged to identify the criteria used to place the ads, and to find ways to verify where these are placed.
Also, online companies will have to label political advertisements so that they are clearly distinguishable as paid-for content.
The proposal as published by Reuters is a good step forward, but it still does not go far enough. I have argued for years that digital giants should be regulated exactly like media companies.
Any content published on social media is public content, and therefore these companies are publishers. Until that is the case in law, democracy will still be in danger.