Just last month the DCMS published it's Final Report into Disinformation and ‘fake news’. (It is a sign of the times, that the report had to be re-named to reference "disinformation" in light of the increased use of the term "fake news" to describe content that is disliked rather than fake or untrue.)
As part of that report, the DCMS called for sites such as Facebook to be brought under regulatory control.
The announcement by Matt Hancock, UK Health and Social Care Secretary, calling for new legislation forcing social media companies to remove content promoting false information about vaccines is therefore not unsurprising.
At DLA Piper's MSE Summit earlier this month, an esteemed panel debated the issue of fake news and disinformation in a session: "Lies, Damn Lies and Social Media". What was evident from the discussions, was the lack of consensus not only in the UK, but around the globe on how best to tackle this issue. We heard arguments about:
- The issue of copyright not being included in the DCMS report and the potential benefits of removing safe harbours to make platforms take responsibility for content and "to tackle the cult of free".
- The different European approaches to tackling fake news and hate speech. For example, German law has begun to address the regulation of social media by passing a law last year, forcing tech companies to remove hate speech within 24 hours or risk a multi million pound fine, as well as examples of the approach in Italy and France. (The shortcomings of the different rules and the risk to freedom of speech were highlighted.)
- The current UK regulatory initiatives that may draw upon German ideas including the Cairncross report (which recommends a regulator should oversee Google and Facebook to ensure their news is trustworthy), the DCMS report and the forthcoming Online Harms White Paper which could propose altering the landscape for internet platforms and online social media in a major way.
- The value of news to society, the crisis of local news, the dominance of search and social platforms and a need for a focus on how opaque the digital ad market is as a driver of these ongoing behaviours relating to disinformation.
- The impact of social media on mainstream journalism and how the only defence for mainstream journalism is higher integrity and that takes time.
It will be interesting to see whether the measures proposed by Facebook in relation to vaccine information, as reported; namely the rejection of ads and the intention not to show misleading content on hashtag pages will be enforced and whether this will make a difference in relation to this high stakes issue.
One of the criticisms leveled at social media platforms recently has been the lack of data that is being provided to enable an assessment of the levels of disinformation and their compliance with the EU’s code of practice against disinformation which was launched in 2018 ahead of the European elections in May. Until this issue of transparency around steps that are being taken by tech giants and the associated data are sorted, it is going to be hard to see what changes are being implemented and whether they have any impact.