Regulation no match for online misinformation

By The Editorial Board 01 March 2021, 11:10PM

In the lead-up to the 9 April election Police are escalating their efforts to work with social media giant Facebook to prevent the spread of political misinformation online. 

The Police are liaising with Facebook to take down pages and posts that are designed to deliberately misinform the public in the lead-up to the national poll. 

In a story on the front page of Monday’s edition, the Police said they were having productive dialogue with Facebook and making achievements in having misleading content banned from the site (“Police liaise with Facebook to tackle misinformation”).

We agree that Facebook, a global phenomenon for dispensing information with no recent can be used as a political weapon; recent examples abound.

But we should be clear-eyed and realistic about the ability of our Police and Government to rely on Facebook to regulate misleading political content.

Governments world over are struggling to prevent the spread of misinformation on Facebook and failing to engineer strategies to prevent it. Social media is a new challenge for misinformation and one of the greatest challenges of our time.  

Last Friday the Deputy Police Commissioner, Papalii Monalisa Tiai-Keti said her Ministry is continuing to communicate with the social media giant to address the problem of misinformation.

“We are still in liaison with Facebook to address issues like fake pages and certain pages spreading false information,” she said. 

“We can only advise as you know many of these pages including O.L.P. it is one of the most controversial pages that caused a ruckus on social media. 

“But we had done our work and we may have managed to remove it but we notice that we remove one page and a new one is made.” 

Papalii also noted that for every page that is taken down new ones seem to pop up and that Samoa’s ability to regulate a $700 billion American company is limited. 

Her remarks are a sign of progress in the Government’s thinking on the issue of online misinformation. It is clearly taking a different and more realistic tack with the social media giant. Last year a bill was drafted which would have forced the tech giant to incorporate a company branch in Samoa and to make itself answerable to local laws. 

Earlier this month Facebook showed itself quite willing to play hardball when it comes to dealing with Governments when it simply disallowed the sharing of news by Facebook accounts based in Australia. 

That drastic response followed a standoff with the Australian Government, which was demanding that internet giants pay for Australian-made news content they use on their websites.

The Australian Government was making, in our view, the very reasonable case that internet giants such as Facebook were diverting profits from traditional media outlets and using their original content for their own advantage. As the first Government in the world to take such a stance it put international technology giants on notice that they should not be allowed to continue to profit from content they do not create themselves. 

Google complied almost instantly, and struck deals with major Australian media companies such as Nine Entertainment, the owner of some of the country’s largest newspapers, to pay them $30 million over the next five years. 

But Facebook’s approach to negotiations, by contrast, was to simply turn off the news tap and prevent Australian users from posting or seeing any news-related content.

Even the Samoa Observer was affected by the Australian news ban, which cut off tens of thousands of readers from accessing our content via Facebook. 

Their uncompromising attitude reflects the company’s founding ethics, which have always leaned towards anti-censorship. 

Facebook has long styled itself as an entirely neutral platform disinclined to censor information; it has gone so far to describe itself as a “fifth estate”. 

But much has changed from the company’s foundation. Facebook now at least acknowledges that its platform is actively being used to spread political mistruths with potential impacts on elections. 

Many attributed to Facebook a pivotal role in the 2016 American election in which Russia was openly exploiting the website to interfere in the election.

Instances such as these reflect the degree of difficulty the Samoan Government will encounter in trying to rein in political misinformation on social media. 

Our tiny size and the relative lack of value of our consumers to advertisers are a serious roadblock to the speed with which Facebook responds to requests to remove material. 

Estimates vary, but the number of Samoans across the world has been estimated to be as high as 600,000. Many are very active and opinionated about political events taking place in their home country. 

But regulating content posted by a population of this size is naturally going to fall well behind Facebook’s priorities for markets such as America with a population of more than 320 million people.

It’s unclear but doubtful that Facebook even has anyone with Samoan language capacity on its staff, adding an extra layer of difficulty to its ability to be objective about identifying and removing content that crosses the line. 

Governments all over the world are grappling with the challenge of regulating Facebook content, from Canada to Britain. 

But with more than 2 billion estimated users posting an immense volume of information the possibility of regulating Facebook in a timely fashion, especially for a country the size of Samoa is, simply put, impossible.

The Government has only so many options, then, for countering misinformation; it must not rely on cooperation with Facebook as a means of stopping misinformation from spreading in a timely manner.

Facebook’s credibility was recently exposed when Mr. Zuckerberg testified before the American Congress over the harvesting of users’ data. 

British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to obtain data from millions of Facebook users without their consent which was then used primarily for political advertising in support of Republican candidates including Donald Trump. 

Mr. Zuckerberg was highly flustered at his appearance before American lawmakers in an appearance where he apologised for not doing enough to stop the spread of misleading information, foreign interference, and hate speech. 

With Facebook’s credibility at an all-time low, it’s unlikely that the Government will achieve the ends it is seeking through cooperation with the social media giant. 

The only achievable strategy at our Government’s disposal is to combat unreliable information with the truth. 

Government advertising on social media is fraught with danger for the very reasons that Facebook's collection of users' data was such a scandal in 2018. There is a significant risk of the Government overcorrecting in its attempt to counter misinformation and for an incumbent Government to only increase its power and influence instead of tamping down misinformation. 

There is, however, some benefit to issuing completely non-partisan information to be placed on social media. There is little harm from the Office of the Electoral Commission advising the public about elections or issuing warnings about issues such as a recent alleged case of improperly influencing pre-polling voters. 

But the ultimate check on misinformation is the traditional media, the very institution that Facebook is seeking to overtake. With fact-checking, sub-editing, and ethical and moral norms guiding its work independent media outlets are the best remedy to fake information and the best source of factual information.

Relying on a third party to police online information is not a feasible approach for any Government. But having confidence in voters’ ability to sort right information from wrong and that the truth will ultimately win out is.

By The Editorial Board 01 March 2021, 11:10PM

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