Who decides the truth?

Image: Public domain

Earlier this month Minister for Health, Simon Harris, launched a Vaccine Alliance – a network of healthcare professionals, policy makers, patient advocates, students and representatives from groups most affected by vaccine hesitancy – to boost the uptake rate of childhood vaccines. Recently four European countries, including the UK, lost their measles-free status and there are fears Ireland could follow suit. The decline in vaccine uptakes has been linked to the spread of misinformation – or “fake news” – on social media platforms. Minister Harris threw down the gauntlet to social media companies to “decide which side they want to be on” and take decisive action to help reverse this trend.

The challenge of regulating tech companies in the public interest, particularly social media platforms, has been explored in depth. Proposed measures become entangled in overlapping areas of tech, policy, piracy, free speech and platform liability.  Differentiating between illegal speech and ‘opinions I don’t agree with’ (like vaccine disinformation) presents serious challenges to freedom of expression and plurality; at the same time making social media platforms the arbiters of truth is manifestly undesirable. Regulatory overreach would likely be detrimental to the free access to the services that modern society has come to rely upon as well as stifle innovation.

On the other hand the algorithms that drive the social media companies’ traffic favour provocative content that engages users and prolongs their time on the platform, providing a captive audience for targeted ads. In effect, social media has become weaponised to serve advertisers – disinformation is a profitable business.

Across the board the response has been a patchwork of work-arounds. In 2018, the European Commission published its report on a ‘Multi-dimensional Approach to Disinformation’, which opted for a co-regulatory Code of Practice and promotion of media literacy. Companies themselves have taken initiatives to manage misinformation – the broad consensus around the potential harm caused by vaccine misinformation has assisted this agenda. Facebook works with third-party checkers to reduce the distribution of stories that have been flagged as misleading. Instagram has said it would hide hashtags that have a “high percentage” of inaccurate vaccine information with mixed results. Twitter is launching a new tool that directs users to credible public health resources. In February this year, YouTube announced that is demonetising anti-vaccination content. This month, Google adjusted its search algorithm to boost original journalism.

Clearly, a degree of self-regulation has already been adopted by these tech giants. But private entities, that are change agents in the areas of privacy, competitiveness, freedom of speech and national security and law enforcement, operating without oversight run the risk of the tail wagging the dog.

As part of its remit to transpose the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (EU) 2018/1808 (AVMSD) into Irish law for September 2020, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) will effectively become EU-wide watchdog for video on-demand services that are based in Ireland. Under the Directive, providers will require age verification, parental controls and a ‘robust’ complaints mechanism. The BAI would become a statutory regulator with legally enshrined enforcement power to police social media sites’ video content.

The UK government published its Online Harms White Paper on 26 June 2019 which proposed both government and industry-led initiatives including developing a regulatory framework and independent regulator, user redress and a statutory duty of care imposed on social media companies which focuses on a set of desirable outcomes that it would leave to the companies to decide how to implement, not unlike the implementation regime for GDPR. Apart from the measures to be adopted as part of its duties with respect to the AVMSD, the Irish government has not proposed any parallel regime, despite the obvious and pressing need to do so in light of Ireland’s unique position as EU country of incorporation for a large number of global social media companies. Until it does, government talk about the onus being on social media companies to decide which side they want to be on, is cheap.