Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner sat down with Andreas Dietrich of the Swiss publication Blick and discussed the issue of fake news and Facebook’s part in it.
Döpfner believes Facebook should not have to sort out hoaxes from real news because it is a distributor of news — not a publisher.
Here’s the Q&A, which originally appeared on Blick and Le Temps.
Blick: Mr Döpfner, Facebook is under fire throughout the world: so-called fake news has been disseminated through the social network, hoaxes disguised as new stories, and Facebook is doing nothing about it. Do you understand this accusation?
Mathias Döpfner: I can relate very well to the fact that people are worried about the increasing proliferation of lies and rumours which, at first glance, are indistinguishable from seriously researched facts. And I understand the unease they have with a company which supplies 1.8 billion people with information world-wide. But one should be careful not to draw the wrong conclusions now.
Blick: The Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg commented on this complaint a few days ago: Facebook does not want to have to decide itself in future which content is real news and which is fake news. This task should instead be carried out by external experts. Is this the right approach?
Döpfner: I think it is wrong to impose this task on Facebook. Just because something sounds like a good idea does not necessarily mean it will do any good. Facebook should avoid evaluating content as far as possible.
Döpfner: Facebook is not a publisher, but rather a distribution channel. In order to responsibly check the veracity of content you need editors — and Facebook doesn’t have any. Just imagine: if Facebook were to choose what is supposedly right or wrong, or, even worse, what is good or evil, then Facebook would change from a technology platform into a media company. A kind of global superpublisher, which determines what people may read or see and what they may not. I would find this kind of power really sinister.
Blick: Isn’t Facebook taking things a little too easily with this attitude? It must at least be possible to filter out fake news.
Döpfner: And how should that work in practice? What is true, what is false? And who can really judge this? With questions such as whether one and one is two or three, the task is simple. But how should we deal with Christmas? The assertion that the Son of God was born on this day, is a fundamental truth for Christians. For Jews and Muslims this would be fake news. Does Facebook then have to delete the Christmas story?
Blick: So you are giving up the search for truth?
Döpfner: On the contrary. The search for truth is the most important and the most valuable task undertaken by journalists. The best protection against biased misinformation is the diversity of research and opinions from as many publishers as possible. Media diversity is a valuable democratic commodity. Those who are now calling upon Facebook to employ an editor-in-chief and to verify the accuracy of independent editorial texts, deleting them where appropriate, they are creating a kind of global super censor and are destroying precisely the diversity that makes up our democracy. Facebook sees itself as a technology company, which aims to simplify and improve communications between people. It is a kind of modern telecommunications company. People also talk a lot of nonsense on the telephone. The only difference with Facebook is that the nonsense is widely distributed and is transparent.
Blick: Do you really believe that Facebook should allow everything, even hatred and anti-Semitism?
Döpfner: No. But the limits are set here already today. Facebook may not disseminate illegal content. Calling upon people to become terrorists or denying the Holocaust, for example, is punishable by law in several countries. This must therefore be deleted from Facebook. Law enforcement is a matter for the judiciary, but Facebook should also be more active and more accurate when it comes to identifying criminal perpetrators.
Blick: And what do you think of the discussion about the labelling of fake news, which is supposed to take place in cooperation with the media?
Döpfner: I am quite alarmed as far as this debate is concerned. The fact is that Facebook is under pressure from politicians and the public. But this should not lead to them delegating their problem to the media. It is bad enough that we publishers realised too late that it was a mistake to make our content available for free on the Internet. Now we must not make the second cardinal error.
Blick: Which is?
Döpfner: To provide the competence of our journalists — the prerequisite for our content — for free as well. I also find the proposals from public broadcasters worrying. They are offering to help Facebook label fake news. Why should public broadcasters do this with licence fee payers’ money? Their job is to practice excellent journalism. And not to help Facebook resolve its own problems, thus blurring the boundary between distribution channel and responsible editor still further.
Blick: What do you suggest?
Döpfner: I do not believe that it will be possible to label fake news reliably, and in particular at the necessary speed. This is neither a problem nor a task for the media. Why should fake news be labelled as such? Fake news should not be labelled, but at best not published at all. There are already experts as responsible originators available today: the media. We have an established, excellent seal of quality: our media brands!
Blick: As a media executive, you may be biased…
Döpfner: When I surf the web, I know as a user: here is a reliable source of news. I can trust the news here, everywhere else I have to be careful. This is a great opportunity for all media, to regain this trust once more. Incidentally, I firmly believe that people have a pretty good sense of when caution should be exercised.
Blick: Fake news, “alternative fact.” Is this a new phenomenon that has come about in connection with social media?
Döpfner:Fake news is terrible. But we should not allow ourselves to get carried away. Fake news has been around for thousands of years. Things have always been invented, lied about and exaggerated. In the past this happened on the market place or in the pub. Today it is on Facebook or Snapchat. The difference is that everyone can see it and it spreads more quickly.
Blick: Is this a threat or an opportunity for journalism?
Döpfner: Both. But more of an opportunity. The more confusion that arises through fake news, the more people will appreciate the value of seriously researched news — and an editorial office, which assumes responsibility that what is published is also true. This is the job of the press — regardless of whether they do this in the style of The Wall Street Journal or Business Insider or Bild.
Blick: Nevertheless: fewer and fewer people consider the media trustworthy. What in your opinion has caused this decline in trust? And what should the media do against this?
Döpfner: We journalists have made mistakes. Almost all of us were wrong with our forecasts about Brexit and Trump. And reporting was often very one-sided. People notice this and resent it. Trust is lost. We need to be more authentic and closer to our readers. More plain language. Less political correctness.
Blick: Facebook has grown enormously over the last few years and also disseminates the content of numerous media. What is Facebook today in your opinion: a technology company or a media company?
Döpfner: It is on the border. If 43 per cent of Facebook users say that they have read a news story on Facebook and cannot remember whether the originator was the CNN or the New York Times, then this is very much in the direction of a media company. This should be changed and not further strengthened by the demand for Facebook to have its own editors.
Disclosure: Axel Springer is Business Insider’s parent company.