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As more governments look at legal means of fighting fake news little consensus is emerging. Where free speech remains an admirable, even necessary quality of democracy, clamping down on misinformation and manipulated news moves far too close to censorship. But, what’s a politician to do?
The Swiss Federal Council published a report this week on several aspects of social media and possible regulation. Fake news and “social bots” figured prominently. In general, they decided to err of the side of patience… very Swiss.
“Social media plays a central role in the dissemination of fake news,” said the Federal Council’s statement (May 10) (See here - in French) “Some problematic aspects are already covered by laws in force. At the same time, platform operators and private organzations have launched several self-regulators initiatives against intentionally false information.” (See more about fake news here)
“It is not appropriate at this moment,” said the Federal Council, “to create new standards in this area. Developments at the national and international levels should be noted and analyzed (to determine) if the existing legal framework coupled with instruments of self-regulation is sufficient or if State regulation is necessary.”
In Switzerland, fake news barely registers. Swiss legacy media - public and private - is sufficiently strong to blot out rowdy upstarts. The multi-lingual country is surrounded by Germany, France, Austria and Italy, inundated by a wide variety of outside sources, all taken in stride by Swiss people. The recently released RSF World Press Freedom Index ranked Switzerland 7th in the world.
The onward march of digital media changes most everything, inevitably. Bumps in the road are but temporary annoyances. "Resistance is futile," said The Borg in Star Trek.
The film industry, viewed globally, is completely swept up in digital transformation. Films are less often viewed in theaters, more often on digital devices. This is a challenge for the Cannes Film Festival, where spotlights shine on the art and the indulgence. Cannes is in France, the south of France, where the beach is.
In April the Cannes Film Festival accepted for screening two Netflix-produced movies - The Meyerowitz Stories and Okja. Both have been well-reviewed, Netflix planning release later this year. French theater operators, via the Federation of French Cinemas, had a melt-down, demanding “these works will be able to be released in cinemas in accordance with the current regulatory framework.” French law grants to theaters a 36 month window to show films before release is allowed on video-on-demand platforms. (See more about media in France here)
Netflix moved forward toward barricades erected by the French theater operators. The Cannes Film Festival, faced with no good options, changed its rules… for next year. The Netflix-produced films will indeed be screened this year but maybe not in 2018.
Some in the French film industry granted that times have changed. “The Cannes Film Festival does not have to be taken hostage by the parochial Franco-Francophone wars that have agitated the world of cinema for years,” said French rights management society Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques (SACD) president Jacques Fansten, quoted by Les Echos (May 10). The Cannes Film Festival is, arguably, the most important promotional event for film makers and is “the French jewel of the seventh art,” noted Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux, who originally accepted inclusion of the Netflix films. (See more about video on demand here)
Adapting French media rules, all intertwined with cultural traditions, has challenged politicians for a generation. The popular position is avoidance, best to defend the sensitivities. Newly-elected president Emmanuel Macron has promised to “simplify audiovisual regulation.”
It is fair to assume that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his pals had little sense of what their little creation would become. It was supposed to be a happy place to keep track of friends and acquaintances, not to forget sharing those cat photos. Now it reaches 1.94 billion folks, roughly a quarter of the world’s population, and is, according to ZenithOptimedia, the world’s second largest media company.
Facebook has attracted another distinction; “the world’s largest hate platform,” said Austrian Green Party spokesperson Dieter Brosz, quoted by Der Standard (May 8). The Green Party won a legal decision this week requiring Facebook to remove “hate posts” regardless of geography. The Vienna Commercial Court last December told Facebook to remove hate speech, as defined by Austrian law. The appellate court strengthened that ruling to include removal of re-postings. (See more about social media here)
The original lawsuit stemmed from Green Party chairperson Eva Glawischnig being targeted by a particular fake account Facebook page, filled with really nasty stuff, which was re-posted by even more haters. Facebook had claimed Austrian courts had no standing as the company is domiciled in the United States with European headquarters in Ireland. The appellate court said the “hate posts” violated Facebook’s stated “community standards.”
A review by the Austrian Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether or not Facebook must disclose identities of those who create anonymous pages.
Publishers have long articulated their demands from new media operators. Beyond copyright protections, algorithm transparency and link dominance they want one thing: money. They didn’t get to be big publishers by arguing trivia.
And so Facebook, often slow to see the light, finally put some money in publisher’s pockets. Full-page ads in four UK newspapers appeared this week touting “tips for spotting false news,” taken straight from an “educational notice” appearing in the Facebook news feed for UK users. The ads appeared in the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Guardian and London Metro. The ten “tips” start with “be skeptical” and end with “think critically.” (See more about social media here)
The target audience is clear: influencers. Tabloids Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and the Sun were not included in the ad buy. Perhaps it was just an oversight. Perhaps publishers refused on the grounds of offensive content even though the ad copy referred to “false news” rather than “fake news.” Perhaps there were trademark issues. (See more about fake news here)
"To help people spot false news we are showing tips to everyone on Facebook on how to identify if something they see is false,” said Facebook UK policy director Simon Milner in a statement, quoted by BBC News, which does not run ads. The campaign is rather transparently timed ahead of the general election coming in June. Prior to the French presidential elections Facebook ran a similar ad campaign in Le Monde, Les Échos, Libération, Le Parisien and 20 Minutes.