Germany’s controversy over fake news

Photo Courtesy of AFP

Jessica Wade

The internet is an amazing, powerful thing, a tool for information to spread and for ideas to evolve and be shared.

Unfortunately, the internet is also used as a platform for opinions advertised as straight forward facts and deliberate lies spread as news. What may begin as a rumor tweeted to a few hundred people can grow into something dangerous.

One such baseless rumor led 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch to fire an AR-15 rifle into the door of a pizzeria restaurant in Washington D.C., a response to the blatant lie that the restaurant was the site of a child sex-abuse ring involving powerful Democrats such as Hillary Clinton.

Then there was the case of Anas Modamani, a Syrian refugee who posed for a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015. Modamani sued Facebook after the photo went viral with strangers claiming he was a criminal and a terrorist. He recently lost his case in court, but his case is one of many that has led to Germany’s social-media bill that was unveiled Wednesday.

The first of its kind, the bill is intended to deter the spread of hate speech and fake news in Germany. If passed, it would compel social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to pay massive fines if they failed to remove fake news or content that incites hate.

Possibly a response to the fake news that ran rampant during the U.S. election last year, officials hope to prevent a similar situation as Germany enters its own campaign season. It is also intended to combat the surge of far-right violence in the country.

Merkel’s cabinet approved the bill Wednesday, meaning its approval by the German Parliament is highly likely.

Facebook is actively taking steps towards combating fake news on its own and has reacted to the bill with skepticism, insisting the measure would give too much power to corporations in deciding which content crosses the line.

“We work very hard to remove illegal content from our platform and are determined to work with others to solve this problem,” A Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “As experts have pointed out, this legislation would force private companies, rather than the courts, to become the judges of what is illegal in Germany.”

This bill is an interesting concept, but it does highlight a problem that seems to come up often in an increasingly polarized society at what point does a personal opinion cross from free speech to threaten-ingly hateful?

Fake news is a serious problem that has the potential to ruin the lives of individuals as well as influence public opinion, but monitoring the content posted on private accounts is a controversial plan, even if it is
executed with the best intentions.

A country’s greatest defense against fake news is to educate people on what is opinion, what is news and what is a blatant lie spread to hurt a group or individual. In a world where people can communicate instantly, the safety net of legitimate news—professional journalists, copy editors and a three-source system, is constantly taken for granted.

Facebook was not founded with the intention or the responsibility of becoming a reliable news source, but it will have to find a way to evolve. World leaders should give it a chance to evolve on its own rather than force laws on a platform intended for free expression. In this increasingly divided world, hopefully people remember to share the truth.