Sunday, 1 April 2018

Fake news: To ban or not to ban?

Following the revelation that Cambridge Analytics used Facebook to define personal profiles to be targeted in the Trump election campaign, there are now “calls for more transparency on the internal algorithms that internet platforms use to promote stories, limits on the “harvesting” of personal information for political purposes, and disclosure by tech companies of who funds “sponsored content” on their websites (FT, 31-3-2018)”.

The emergence of accessible and free (cheap) information through social media created a situation similar that in the XIX Century when cheap printing made a daily occurrence the proliferation of all kinds of pamphlets promising miracles or disasters. Like many today believe without reserve what is said in the press or shown on TV, our ancestors believed in the written word.

Obviously, like cheap printing, social media attracts all types of crooks and loonies as well as politicians. What is different this time is that state-sponsored organizations are taking a greater advantage of the naivety of social media users. But even this is not entirely new. In the past foreign governments have also sponsored radio and press sympathetic to their propaganda.

Fortunately, our ancestors did not impose a ban on printing otherwise we would live in a different world. They simply waited patiently that the general public learned to distinguish the fake from the true and that a more trustworthy press emerged.

Likewise, we should resist any bans on social media. Otherwise, we would end up as in China, Russia or Turkey where only social media acceptable to the respective governments is tolerated.

This is not equal to a complete lack of regulation. Indeed, a soft type of regulation similar to what applies to the advertising industry is more than enough. One should distinguish between what is an acceptable exaggeration, or a non-harmful lie, from those that should give grounds to liability.

For the later, one needs to have rules on secrecy and sponsored messages that strike the right balance between privacy and responsibility.

Likewise, in what concerns the right to use personal information to build profiles and marketing strategies one should not go beyond what now distinguishes what is proprietary or public information used in market studies.

Finally, in what concerns forcing the social-media to provide tools that allow its users to protect against lack of privacy or to avoid spam from fake news, these are necessary but should be solved by business competition. It is desirable that more social networks other than Facebook flourish to provide less or greater degrees of secrecy.

For instance, among my Facebook friends there is one keen to share theories of conspiracy as well as Putin’s and communist propaganda. Now I have only two options, either to block him completely or to block one by one the sites he shares. However, it makes sense for Facebook to add an extra option to block everything that he shares. But this should not be enforced by regulation. I simply need to wait that Facebooks realizes that it risks losing members like me and come up with a solution out of their business sense.

In choices between regulation and liberty one should generally err on the liberty side. So, let us not rush into too much regulation of the social media.

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