Why has Facebook changed its mind on fake news? Thank the Germans
Since the election, I -- along with every other journalist on the planet -- have been encouraging Mark Zuckerberg to take Facebook’s culpability for allowing fake news to help get Trump elected.
And since that same election, Mark Zuckerberg has been reminding us that he doesn’t give a tu’penny fuck what journalists think Facebook should do. He rejected the idea that Facebook had altered the election as “pretty crazy” and made clear, as far as he was concerned, Facebook was a technology company with none of the responsibilities for accuracy of a media organization.
In a half-assed statement on November 12th, Zuckerberg repeated his insistence that it was highly unlikely that Facebook had anything to apologize for:
Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.
He also seemed to reject any notion that Facebook might take steps to banish fake news from its platform, saying “I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”
Business as usual, in other words.
Or at least that’s what Zuckerberg thought.
But then a funny thing happened. On Thursday, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas annoucned he was considering making Facebook subject to the country’s media laws. That is, Facebook would be liable to fines and other penalties for continuing to allow the spread of false or otherwise dangerous stories on its platform .
And then, wie durch Magie, Zuckerberg suddenly had a change of heart. In a new post, published late Friday evening he decided to give “an update” to his previous comments.
While the percentage of misinformation is relatively small, we have much more work ahead on our roadmap. Normally we wouldn't share specifics about our work in progress, but given the importance of these issues and the amount of interest in this topic, I want to outline some of the projects we already have underway:
He then listed a series of steps Facebook was taking to rid its platform of the exact same kind of stories which he’d previous insisted made no difference to how people voted.
“I want you to know that we have always taken this seriously, we understand how important the issue is for our community and we are committed to getting this right.”
What triggered the update? A sudden rush of ethics? A new found willingness to listen to the voices of users? Not even slightly.
Remember last week when I said that Facebook doesn’t make ethical decisions, only data-driven ones? That it only acts when it faces a serious, measurable threat to its business activities?
Well, inside Facebook, rumblings from German lawmakers represent a very frightening data point indeed. In fact, it’s probably true that -- with the possible exception of the UK -- Germany is the only European country capable of putting the fear of God into Facebook.
To understand why, you have to understand that very often where German politicians go, so too does European law. The Germans wield huge control inside the EU, all the more so after Brexit. If the Germans get the idea that Facebook has got too big or dangerous for its books -- like Google and Microsoft and Uber before it -- then it probably won’t be long until EU lawmakers start to get the same idea. Down that path lie antitrust investigations, new media laws, fines and more. In other words, doing business in Europe becomes a much, much bigger pain in the ass. Or indeed arsch.
[Update: Surprise! Just before this article was published, the Daily Mirror reported that the UK's opposition party is already preparing a "major probe" Facebook's fake news problem.]
Yesterday, the New York Times wrote its most scathing editorial yet about Facebook. Signed by its Editorial Board, the paper described fake news as a “virus”:
Mr. Zuckerberg himself has spoken at length about how social media can help improve society. In a 2012 letter to investors, he said it could “bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.”
None of that will happen if he continues to let liars and con artists hijack his platform.
In any ordinary year I’d say that an Editorial like that might leave Facebook at risk of intervention from American lawmakers. Editorial columns in the Times tend to get the attention of politicians in the way that angry blog posts don’t, especially when they echo similar comments by the President. At a press conference last week, President Obama described faked news on social networks as a threat to democracy. Separately, the President is reported to have been “talking obsessively” about a Buzzfeed report on Facebook’s fake news producers.
But this isn’t a normal year. This is a year in which America elected Donald Trump as president, and in which President elect Trump nominated Facebook board member Peter Thiel to his transition team (Thiel is also a Pando investor through Founders Fund). Zuckerberg’s stubborn refusal to fire Thiel over this blatant conflict of interest shows that once again he’s considering the data, ethics be damned: With Thiel on board, he has much less to fear from a Trump controlled government, or Trump loyal politicos.
But Germany is quite another matter. The Germans, representing most of western Europe, are already angry over Brexit and the rise of Trump, both being debacles which benefitted from fake stories spread on Facebook. One could hardly blame them for wanting to give Zuckerberg a black eye, as a proxy for Trump and Nigel Farage.
And they might not be the only ones. If you were president Obama, furious at Facebook for playing a part in the imminent dismantling of your legacy but knowing there’s not much you can do to hit back at home… what might you do to hit back?
Here’s a coincidence: President Obama made his criticism of Facebook during a press conference in Berlin, standing next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.