Posted on May 07, 2022
Fake news was the theme of a zoom conference centred on the Brussels Press Club this week. As a participant I was struck by the significance of the discussion and the serious implications that were raised.
As was pointed out, the way social media platforms are operating is causing social conflict through vile and offensive posts, allowing commercial interests to damage or destroy competitors, enhancing the spread of political propaganda and, indeed, facilitating criminal activity.
Now, as if that were not enough there is no question that democracy HAS BEEN undermined to a serious extent and, if the signals I am getting have been correctly assessed, will be virtually destroyed.
Social media affects political thinking and behavior and diverts attention from serious issues of governance towards political chatter and scandal that is undermining the way democratic governments operate.
The discussion about the desperate situation an enterprising Romanian pharmacist and businesswoman, Ioana Marinescu, has found herself and her company, PlushBio in as a direct result of fake news reports on various platforms highlighted the failure of governments across the world but especially the European Union.
The debate about how to deal with social media platforms has become complicated and immersed with corporate interests. But, almost accidentally I found myself proffering a simple solution.
One speaker suggested that one of the leading “platforms” has become fast at removing material once they receive a legitimate complaint. My point was, however, and remains, that if something fake or derogatory is posted it can be read, noted or copied by hundreds of thousands in a few minutes.
The solution in my view is within the law as it exists, and the courts that are a fundamental pillar of democracy. At this point I must stress that I am not a lawyer but the reason I was invited to join the Zoom meeting is that I have worked all my life as a journalist, much of the time for national newspapers and media outlets in the United Kingdom.
Newspapers, magazines, television and radio are all liable for libel, slander or unfair defamation. The law may differ from country to country in the EU but the situation must surely be as is illustrated by a common saying in English: “Say that about me to anyone else and I will see you in court”.
The problem is that social media platforms operate on the basis that they are not publishers, simply technical purveyors of what is complained of.
National newspapers in London, in my time presented every article for the next day’s paper to their in-house lawyer who would assess what was written and if necessary ask the author to confirm that the sources were reliable and the information accurate. Not to do so put them at risk of massive defamation claims.
People everywhere complain that the information that damaged their reputations or put them out of business was posted by people who cannot be traced. Now, how can that be? Putting up fake or defamatory material written by unknown authors themselves concealing their identity?
From my basic knowledge of the law the platforms carrying vast amounts of unchecked gossip, ill-informed opinion and downright criminal content ARE PUBLISHERS! A question to be asked to underscore this point is if some individual or a business were to announce that each day it would print a paper but that any content was not its responsibility the courts would say they were evading their legal responsibility. The same would be true of any radio or television station.
There are, of course wider issues that arise. A British Government Minister was forced to resign because he was caught on a concealed camera cuddling his mistress. As an old fashioned reporter I have to ask whether it is legal to secretly film someone on private or government premises. It is not. It is illegal to photograph someone on private property without their permission.
The American Julian Assange is still in custody after many years because America wants him deported for publishing leaked government documents. His case highlights how utterly corroded democracy is because while he is in that position others are not.
Information leaks that abound in the social media world today are breach of contract and in many cases, a breach of the law. To leak secrets from a government department is probably covered by legal restrictions and to me, at least, are bordering on - if not actually in law - treason. The courts should decide on that but if Assange is extradited then action should be taken against social platforms.
Social media platforms claim they cannot identify the sources of some of their material. The terrorist organisation ISIS used social media to spread its propaganda. Russia is accused of massive fake news manipulation. A false story that Hilary Clinton and her chief of staff ran a child sex ring from a Pizzeria is credited with destroying her election chances in favour of Donald Trump. The story goes on et al.
The legal profession and established media have failed the Romanian lady whose business was so badly damaged she almost lost her livelihood. The conference heard how initial media interest in the matter quickly disappeared leading to suspicions that big money was involved. If my assessment of the law is wrong there is, in fact, a simple solution. If legal responsibility for content does not apply to social media companies then the EU and UK should introduce appropriate legislation.
Hate law surely covers much of the social abuse? If not then legislation should be introduced. Establishing that platforms are liable would do much to stop today’s social divisions.Those opposed to controlling social media platforms should remember one truism that really does apply: the platforms, corporations and others using them research people signing up to them for marketing and, it seems obvious, political and much more sinister reasons including criminal activities.
Since the Ukraine war began the EU especially has shown itself not to be a true union but a trade organisation whose members divide and disagree on issues across the board.
There should be agreement on social media law because if the platforms are not controlled there can be no true freedom and democracy will be history. It would be interesting to see what the European Court of Justice might make of our Romanian business lady’s case based on existing law. If they should not agree with my legal points then they could be asked to recommend changes to the legal situation.
Waiting for the European Commission to act clearly won’t save democracy.
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