As Facebook struggles to respond to criticism about how much responsibility—if any—it bears for a wave of fake news that engulfed the social network during the U.S. election campaign, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been doing his best to deny that the company is a media outlet.
There are a number of reasons why Facebook doesn't want to describe itself as a media company, including economic ones. But one big reason is that being defined in such a way could open the network up to regulation, and impose a range of responsibilities on it that it probably wouldn't like.
Some senior members of the European Union, for example, are eager to treat Facebook the same way they treat media companies that own newspapers, radio stations, and TV networks.
German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said on Thursday that he believes social platforms like Facebook should be defined as media outlets for regulatory purposes. "In my view they should be treated as media even if they do not correspond to the media concept of television or radio," he said in Berlin.
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Facebook and other social-media services are currently protected from liability for hate speech or illegal content posted on them, in the same way U.S. companies are. But media companies that own newspapers and radio or TV stations do not have this kind of protection.
Coincidentally enough, President Barack Obama was also in Germany on Thursday talking with German chancellor Angela Merkel. And during his remarks he talked about the spread of fake news on social networks and how that could weaken democracy.
If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.
A group of web companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter signed an EU hate speech accord earlier this year that requires them to respond within 24 hours to notifications about hate speech on their services.
The agreement is voluntary, however, and some European regulators believe that legislative measures are necessary to prevent such services from spewing xenophobia and racism. One German minister at the meeting that Maas attended said these new laws should impose a penalty of up to $1 million for each offense.
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A number of Facebook watchers including one of its Silicon Valley investors said the company has no real economic incentive to admit it is a media outlet, because it would drag the social network into a legislative morass.
The German justice minister's musings are just one example of how that fear could be manifested if Facebook were to go that route. But ultimately it may have no choice.