The issue of fake news became a mainstream concern in November 2016 right after the US Presidential election. Internet giants faced a backlash over the spread of ‘false news’ on their platforms. This - some critics said - may have convinced voters to vote for the Republican candidate.
The backlash prompted intermediaries to introduce changes to their policies, with Google and Facebook both announcing to be working on changes to prevent 'fake news' websites to use their respective advertising networks. Google announced it would change its policy to prevent websites that misrepresent content from using its AdSense advertising network. Facebook updated its advertising policies to spell out that its ban on deceptive and misleading content applies to fake news.
Meanwhile, intermediaries faced further criticism when German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Internet platforms to reveal their search engine algorithms, over concerns that their lack of transparency would 'lead to a distortion of our perception' and 'shrink our expanse of information'. Merkel argued that Internet users have a right to know on what basis they receive information through search engines. She explained that the algorithms operated by search engines could lead to a lack of confrontation with opposing ideas - leading to so-called filter bubbles and echo chambers - which can harm a healthy democracy.
While the controversy shone a bright light on the role of intermediaries in the lead-up to the 11th Internet Governance Forum, held on 6-9 December in Guadalajara, the IGF discussions brought a slight shift in focus. Fake news was discussed more in connection with how to validate information (role of users), than how platforms should tackle the issue (role of intermediaries), as has been the case in public debate.
Speakers argued that there needs to be greater social media literacy ‘to understand that what we’re reading is not the whole picture’, while others discussed the distinction between reputable and non-reputable news outlets, acknowledging that even the most established outlets can get it wrong. On the other hand, the role of intermediaries was discussed in the context of content removal, hate speech, net neutrality and zero-rating practices, and the protection of human rights.
In 2017, the issue of fake news regained prominence. On one hand, news organisations are facing staunch criticism by US President Trump over the 'spread of lies', amid inquiries by several governments on how to tackle false news in their countries. On the other hand, intermediaries are taking steps to flag fake news and verify information.
As developments unfold, many questions are surfacing: Should intermediaries be solely responsible for the spread of fake news? Should governments step in? What are the main legal and technical mechanisms to stop the spread of false news?