Ahead of the German federal election, Facebook this week deleted around ten thousand German social media accounts after accusing them of spreading fake news. This move is not new for the social media giant, which deleted 30,000 French accounts before the recent French presidential election and “tens of thousands” of accounts before the UK general election.
Critics have complained that the actions are politically motivated, and that Facebook is attempting to tip the scales in favor of “progressive” candidates. While Facebook denies any bias, complaints about #FakeNews have predominately come from the left side of politics. In Germany, Renate Künast, a Green MP for “consumer protection”, has spoken out repeatedly about the need to limit the free discussions of “right-wing extremists”. The type of extremists she is likely to be concerned about, include the German grandmother fined €1,350 sharing an anti-immigration Facebook meme.
While Facebook has released a white paper explaining what they see as the problem, and how they identify “attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people”, the explanations, however, raise more concerns than they answer. For example, the discussion around the particular popularity of “leaked or stolen information” suggests the material of concern to Facebook is not necessarily untrue. Why would an unbiased organisation have concern with the truth of an issue reaching voters?
The individuals are commonly known as “activists” when they are left-leaning, and “extremists” when right leaning.
Another aspect of interest in the white paper is the discussion of the identities of fake accounts. While politicians and researchers have complained about bots and foreigners, the Facebook white paper tells a different story. Typically:
“Creation of Groups or Pages with the specific intent to spread ‘sensationalistic’ or heavily biased news or headlines, often distorting facts to fit a narrative. Sometimes these Pages include legitimate and unrelated content, ostensibly to deflect from their real purpose…
…Creation of inflammatory and sometimes racist memes, or manipulated photos and video content…
…many actions by fake account operators that could only be performed by people with language skills and a basic knowledge of the political situation in the target countries, suggesting a higher level of coordination and forethought…”
These actions don’t sound like the sort of thing which are performed by bots and foreigners, they are undertaken by dedicated locals. The individuals are commonly known as “activists” when they are left-leaning, and “extremists” when right leaning.
Finally, social media is an interactive affair, and users choose which individuals and groups they will follow. It isn’t like mass advertising where content is put in front of consumers eyeballs. They have to go looking for it. If real voters are seeking out content from real, human, local, activists which is based on real leaked information revealing the truth, what place does Facebook have interfering with that?
The company has been fighting against accusations of bias since early 2016, when Gizmodo reported an anonymous ex-contractor claimed that the “Trending Topics” newsfeed was being politically distorted. A subsequent internal investigation by Facebook was undertaken after US Republican Senator requested an explanation from the company. While they claimed to find “no systematic bias”, they did remove the ability of team member to rank the importance of particular news items.
Spurring on the need for action by Facebook is a controversial new law in Germany. It will allow for fines of up to €50 million for social media companies who fail to remove “illegal content” within 24 hours of it being reported. While this is simple enough in the case of child pornography and death threats, in many cases determining legality will be difficult. In Germany, content which is “defamatory, libellous or incendiary” is illegal. Facebook will have to either determine the truth of individual matters to decide if it is defamatory, or simply delete it regardless. For political or opinionated matters, the truth will always be somewhat murky. Civil libertarians and conservative politicians are concerned that Facebook will simply delete posts when unsure. Freedom of speech will be curbed, and anti-establishment political parties will be impeded.