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'Force them to take responsibility': Press Ombudsman wants crackdown on Facebook misinformation

Peter Feeney called for stricter regulation on social media at a conference in Dublin this week.

IRELAND’S PRESS OMBUDSMAN has said that the government needs to take action to regulate information being spread on Facebook in the same manner as traditional media content is regulated in this country.

Peter Feeney was speaking this week at the Maternity, Media and the Law conference in Dublin, describing social media as a place where “untrue, dishonest, angry and ugly” information can be posted “largely without any means of being challenged”.

He said that the onus should be put on the social media companies themselves to take responsibility to tackle misinformation.

The issue of misinformation on social media has been thrown to the fore ahead of the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment.

Last weekend, Facebook users were targeted with advertisements from an unknown group purporting to be unbiased directing them to a website called undecided8.org.

Facebook ads can be posted by pages and targeted at users based on a variety of different factors (age, location, gender, etc). The ads can direct users to ‘like’ pages on Facebook or link them to other websites.

The ads for undecided8.org said that it was providing people with “unbiased facts” in relation to the upcoming referendum on whether or not to Repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

Any users who click through to the website were offered “eight unbiased facts to help you decide” on how to vote.

But while a number of the facts provided were entirely neutral (for example: when the referendum will be held; what is the deadline to vote), others were less so, as explained here.

The Press Ombudsman said that his office has “virtually no remit over social media” and that while it covers online news sources, content that can reach far on Facebook has little regulation.

While the Press Council’s code of practice cover principles such truth and accuracy, and distinguishing fact and comment, information disseminated to Irish people on Facebook can claim to be factual while not being required to adhere to such codes.

“It’s very difficult to get stuff taken down from Facebook or Twitter,” Feeney said. “It needs to have a sense of responsibility. It needs to be regulated in the same way.

The economic motif of Facebook is to grow, grow, grow but growth can be at the expense of responsibility. Social media need to be forced to take a sense of responsibility.

He cited scam posts promising financial advice but also singled out commentary around the Eighth Amendment, saying:

There is a considerable degree of misleading information being out there about this.

Feeney also said that the government was working towards some kind of regulator that would look after child protection on social media.

“[But] it’s almost impossible to do this on a national basis,” he said. “That’s why it’s important that social media companies themselves take on that responsibility.”

The ombudsman had said even something so simple as complaining about a particular post on Facebook was challenging.

He said: “They’ve 1,600 people across the road from our office but you can’t ring them. We’ve asked Facebook for a phone number for members of the public to pass on their concerns. We’re directed to complaints@facebook.com. At a newspaper, at least you can get to speak to someone who can action your problem.”

Facebook has recently announced a suite of measures which it says will help stop the dissemination of incorrect information or fake news.

These include the deployment of AI to identify and combat fake accounts, misinformation, or foreign interference related to the upcoming referendum.

The efforts also include third-party fact-checking programme in Ireland through a new partnership with TheJournal.ie.

With reporting by Cormac Fitzgerald

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Sean Murray

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