Axel Springer Boss: Facebook Doesn't Need To Police Fake News

Facebook should not try to establish itself as the arbiter of real versus fake news, according to one of the world’s most powerful media executives.

Mathias Doepfner, the CEO of German publisher and media conglomerate Axel Springer, made the remarks during an interview with Bloomberg TV on Tuesday. He expressed a stance counter to what many pundits have called for in the wake of Donald Trump’s upset victory in the 2016 presidential election.

Some have blamed Trump's win, at least in part, on fake news circulating on social media.

Doepfner was emphatic that as a technology platform, it is not Facebook’s responsibility to begin filtering content beyond removing items that are obviously illegal. He warned this would give the social network virtually unprecedented power: “The whole idea that they should have some kind of super-editor, that would transform Facebook into a global media monopoly – and that’s really going into the wrong direction.”

For example, among the potential pitfalls noted by other media watchers, a Facebook super-editor might have a difficult time sorting out fake news from opinion, satire and commentary or policy recommendations.

It could also serve to stifle marginal journalism by startups and citizen reporters, as early, unverified reports could quickly be quashed as “fake.”

Similarly, all journalism by mainstream news orgs citing unnamed sources, including leaks and whistle-blowers, might be open to dispute and censorship if the sources proved unwilling to reveal themselves.

Instead, Doepfner argued, the duty of distinguishing real from fake news should continue to fall on news organizations themselves, relying on the traditional marketplace of ideas to debunk false stories and identify charlatan publishers. This laissez-faire stance likely reflects the deep-seated aversion to government involvement in media or information prevailing in Germany, stemming from the country’s dark history.

Although Facebook has promised to take steps against publishers of fake news, for example, by disrupting their monetization models on its advertising network, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also expressed reluctance to set the social network up as the judge of truth.

On that note, it may be worth recalling that in the past, fake news has been accepted as a form of entertainment — think of those many tabloid headlines about “bat boy.” Even where demonstrably false, sharing fake news can also be viewed as an expression of opinion or even, say, performance art.

Ultimately, any efforts to police fake news online will run into a basic confounding fact: In a democracy, the people are solely responsible for their decisions. True, the decisions rendered by voters will only be as good as the “information” or misinformation they receive, but nobody else can be responsible for deciding what information they should consume.

Put another way, if large numbers of Americans readily believe false news content because they fail to perform the basic due diligence of an informed news consumer, then the issue is the individual’s intelligence and judgment. Readers should check the source of information or look for confirmation of sensational claims in other sources.

In short, the real shortcoming lies in human nature, and it’s hard to see what Facebook or anyone else can do about it.

1 comment about "Axel Springer Boss: Facebook Doesn't Need To Police Fake News".
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  1. Benny Thomas from Rise&Shine&Partners, November 29, 2016 at 2:30 p.m.

    Unfortunately, our biases are stronger than our rational intelligence and no one has the time to fact-check. And algorithms are designed to reinforce our biases, not expand or explode them. Tim O'Reilly has already posted some ways platforms could start to distinguish real from fake. Ultimately, it's not an either/or - platforms and publishers need to work together to define the news category. But we cannot ignore the dominance of the platforms, in terms of scale as well as bias-reinforcing design. They need to take some steps to counter those biases. 

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