Facebook needs to be held legally accountable for the content on the platform

Facebook can currently dodge responsibility for the content on its platform, because it claims disseminate news, and not produce it.


Germany's Justice Minister Heiko Maas believes that Facebook should be held criminally responsible for the hate speech on its platform. Facebook can currently dodge responsibility for the content on its platform, because it claims to be a platform for dissemination of the news, and not a producer of news itself. However, this means that Facebook can not be held legally accountable for the content on its platform.

Considering the way Facebook is used, and how Facebook is changing, this accountability does make sense. Apple shifted Twitter into the "News" category of applications on its App Store. Facebook is moving much beyond being just a social network. Facebook provides marketing, media, enterprise, directory, governance and safety services, but is only accountable as a social network. Facebook delivers news content natively on its platform, without redirecting the users to the web site where the content is hosted. Facebook hosts and delivers news content natively. The feature is called Instant Articles.

At the moment, Facebook just admits when it's messed up, and announces the changes it is making, but there are no fines, and no real accountability. Invariably these measures comes after Facebook "listens to the community", after an outcry. The content policing process is arbitrary. An iconic war time photo of a girl running away from a napalm explosion, called "Napalm Girl," was taken down from the site. Following allegations of trying to fix history, and abuse of power, the photo was restored. The community standards used to moderate content is opaque. Facebook allows for violent posts on blood and gore, but has an aversion to pranks and nudity. A bug banned users from posting with the phrase "Everyone will Know".

Public uproar cannot be the only mechanism to keep Facebook in check.

In a joint press conference with the Chancellor of Germany, US President Barack Obama slammed the proliferation of fake news on Facebook. "In an age where there’s so much active misinformation — and it’s packaged very well and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television -- where some overzealousness on the part of a U.S. official is equated with constant and severe repression elsewhere — if everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect. We won’t know what to fight for. And we can lose so much of what we’ve gained in terms of the kind of democratic freedoms and market-based economies and prosperity that we’ve come to take for granted." The full transcript of the conference is available on the White House web site.

Facebook is not legally accountable for the fake news problem. In the run up to the US Presidential election in 2016, malicious and fake "news" articles were circulating on the platform. These included promoted posts, a means by which content can be pushed to more people. There were allegations that the amount of fake news circulating on the platform influenced the outcome of the election. Zuckerberg called the idea "crazy", while admitting more needed to be done to moderate the content on the social network.

Facebook is not transparent about how the content gets distributed, and Facebook algorithms, analytics and feedback contribute and at times even practically decide what kind of content should be produced for maximum effectiveness on the platform. For example, Facebook vastly overestimated the amount of video consumption on the platform, resulting in disproportionate investment in video on the platform. Facebook does not allow third party tools to monitor video consumption.

Instant Articles and Page Views also suffered from similar problems because Facebook is the only entity providing these metrics to content creators. The amount of time people spent in Instant Articles was overreported. The company has set up a measurement council with top advertisers and partners to monitor the issue, and has allowed for third party measurements. Nielsen is one of these independent companies supplementing the metrics by Facebook.

More transparency, third party monitoring, and legal accountability are all required to keep Facebook in check.

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