LONDON — Veteran British journalist Jon Snow has labelled Facebook as a potential “threat to democracy” over the social network’s failure to tackle fake news.
Giving the annual James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh on Wednesday, the Channel 4 broadcaster argued that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a “moral duty” to promote the truth, and that its apparent inaction over hoaxes during the US election was “dark” and “cancerous.”
“Facebook enabled the story: ‘Pope endorses Trump for President.’ That engaged more than a million people during the US elections. That same algorithm that prioritised many amazing reports of ours, also prioritised fakery on a massive scale,” Snow said, according to a transcript of his remarks published by Channel 4.
“Facebook has a moral duty to prioritise veracity over virality. It is fundamental to our democracy. Facebook’s lack of activity in this regard could prove a vast threat to democracy.”
The issue of fake news and hoaxes exploded in 2016, with fraudulent stories — including the aforementioned claim the Pope endorsed Trump for president (he didn’t) — racking up hundreds of thousands of shares and clicks in the US presidential election.
Some argue that these hoaxes and misinformation played a role in the shock election of Donald Trump. Zuckerberg initially dismissed the idea as a “pretty crazy idea,” but has since moderated his tone, writing a 6,000 word manifesto about the challenges facing Facebook.
The social network has subsequently introduced new features to try to flag fake news and halt its spread.
But Snow warned that the dominance of Facebook and Google gives them unparalleled power over the flow of information.
“Never since the rise of the printing press have two companies held such a monopoly over the world’s information. Never have such organisations taken so little responsibility for it either,” he said.
“In the past we’ve had the guarantee of reach through our number four on the TV remote. That was the beauty of public service broadcasting. Now we have our 4 million Facebook fans. They are hard earned, but our reach is vulnerable to the whims of one man, Mark Zuckerberg.”
The 69-year-old television presenter asked: “He says he cares about news, but does he really? Or does he care about keeping people on Facebook? Many news organisations including our own, have asked too few questions about the apparent miracle of Facebook’s reach.”
Facebook did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
Snow’s speech also discussed the disconnect between the “elite” — counting himself and the media class as part oft that elite — and ordinary people, centring his argument around the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
“We can as a country no longer allow ourselves to be so ignorant of the lives of others, or the conditions of people who lived in Grenfell Tower,” he said. “It should no longer be possible to live in ignorance of the very present danger in which the residents of several hundred UK tower blocks are still living.”
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