Fake News And Hate Speech Erode Credibility & Confidence in Social Media Platforms Business Depends On
Germany Takes Action
Unless the powers that be start acting the credibility of the internet will suffer to such an extent that businesses using social media for targeted branding, advertising and communications programs stand to see their plans slowly melt away as the platforms they use become increasingly tainted. Recently there have been some very good examples of what’s going wrong with the internet and digital communications. Among the symptoms are hate filled abusive trolling and fake news.
In late March major advertisers, companies like Verzion, Volkswagen, Johnson & Johnson and AT&T started pulling their ads from YouTube because they appeared alongside racist content. A week later Pepsico, Walmart and Starbucks joined the boycott parade. Google says that the problem is caused because the programs it uses to place ads with videos aren’t sophisticated enough to understand which content is too despicable to place ads next to but that it is working on the problem. The company has pledged to hire more people to develop programs to eliminate the problem.
In a statement Walmart said, “The content with which we are being associated is appalling and completely against our company values.”
When it come to Twitter, it almost seems as if you hear more about vicious hate campaigns, like the one launched against Ghostbusters’ actress Leslie Jones, than about the success of its attempts to lock out hate, abuse or racism from the once vaunted Twitterverse. Potholes and cracks are developing in the information highway that threaten to derail the commercial internet.
In a larger context the use of the internet to disseminate false news that has the potential to destabilize the west is more to be feared than any commercial loss. European countries with elections this year have almost all warned their publics about the danger of fake news and they have all pointed their fingers at Russia. On March 23, 2017 the Latvian foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics warned the Canadian government that when Canadian troops deployed to Latvia the country should be prepared for a flood of Russian propaganda in the form of fake news stories on the internet designed to create friction between Canadians and the Latvian population. Shortly after they arrived in Lithuania, 400 German soldiers faced a slew of sexual misconduct stories launched over the internet in an attempt to swing Lithuania over to Russia’s side of the fence. NATO is stationing troops in all the Baltic States in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its continued meddling in Ukraine.
Closer to home, on New Year’s Eve, Breitbart News, ran a story with the headline “Revealed: 1,000-man mob attack police, set Germany’s oldest church alight on New Year’s Eve”. Breitbart’s objective in faking the story can only have been to help destablilize Germany by creating fear. Perversely enough, Breitbart probably thinks this will help stoke the fires of anti-immigrant fear in the United States. A destabilized west also helps Russia expand its influence. The story claimed that thousands of Arab immigrants launched fireworks at police, chanted God is Great and waved jihadist flags. The problem is that nothing remotely like what Breitbart described took place and just as the Swedes were recently surprised to find out they had been the victims of a terrorist attack that never took place, so were the Germans.
Just as many believe that Trump was elected on a web of fake news stories, ones like Pizzagate, where Hilary Clinton was linked to a child sex ring operating out of tunnels under a Washington area pizza restaurant, so many believe that the Brexit vote in Britain was built on the back of decades of tabloid press stories looking for a wild headline to sell stories.
In the United States a majority get their news from social media. Facebook is perhaps the largest online news source and yet it does very little to verify the accuracy of the stories that are promoted or read on it. Because they are seen as simple transmission pipelines social media companies have no legal responsibility for the content they carry.
Germany is about to change that and if it succeeds may very well bring credibility back to the online world. In mid-March the German government tabled a draft bill that would provide for fines as large as 50 million Euros for social media companies that fail to remove hate speech, fake news and other undesirable content within specified time limits.
Given the small amount of revenue that YouTube advertising generates for parent Google, the company is really suffering only from a public relations black eye. But in business, perception is everything. Social media companies claim that policing content is too expensive but with great profit come great social responsibility. The number of fake news stories appearing on Facebook spiked once its human editorial team was terminated and surveillance duties were given over to a computer program. Just as the prospect of hanging provides great concentration so does the prospect of large fines promote corporate change.
While the proposed German legislation may clean up the internet in Europe what affect it will have on North America is an open question. If we are very lucky, social media companies will realize that they have to act responsibly when it comes to fake news and hate and put in place here what they will shortly have to do if they wish to continue operating in Germany. If they do begin to act responsibly then credibility will be restored to the social media platforms that business has grown to depend on when it comes to getting their message to the right audience. If, on the other hand, the internet and social media platforms continue to become the hiding places of all we as a society despise then business will vote with its feet and find a new way to get their message across, perhaps through some form of closed network.
By Noel Meyer