Dr Cherian George, professor of media studies at the journalism department of Hong Kong Baptist University and a former journalist of The Straits Times in Singapore, has criticised social media giants such as Facebook for not being proactive enough in fighting the spread of deliberate misinformation and malicious content throughout its platforms.

Speaking at a panel discussion on fighting fake news at the East West International Media Conference in Singapore on 25 June, he said that Facebook does not have enough Burmese-speaking moderators to help uphold Facebook’s Terms of Service, part of which is the prompt removal of hate speech from the platform.

He says that pressure should be applied on Facebook by ASEAN governments, and that the company should not be let “off the hook”.

George announced that he has stopped using Facebook as a form of protest in favour of a non-profit and “ethical” social media platform.

“Enough is enough. I’m abandoning Facebook until the company comes clean,”
he wrote in a Facebook post dated 20 March.

However, he admitted that Facebook’s influential status as one of the leading social media platforms in the world means that “we’re going to be dependent on Facebook for a long time”.

Even so, he said that we “should not be satisfied by [empty] platitudes from [Mark] Zuckerberg [Chief Executive Officer of Facebook] and his representatives”, and that the public should consistently hold them up to scrutiny.

Dr George also said that swift and up-to-date strategies are needed to respond to such hate speech and fake news, such as soliciting help from giant online platforms such as Google in terms of facilitating the speed of fact-checking. Google News, for example, enables journalists and reporters to access the latest news reports relevant to a particular topic being searched, all under a single section.

His suggestion makes perfect sense, given that much of the bulk of fake news being circulated is shouldered by platforms on the Internet, particularly social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

In a report by The Straits Times, Facebook and WhatsApp were identified as the two main sources of fake news by people who responded to a government survey on attitudes towards such news.

These findings by government feedback unit Reach came to light in the midst of scrutiny against the deliberate spread of misinformation by a parliamentary Select Committee.

Reach polled 2,504 Singapore residents aged 15 and older via phone interviews held between 8 May and 19 May last year, and between 12 February and 20 February this year. The respondents were selected at random, and the sample was weighted by gender and age to ensure that it was representative of the national population.

77 per cent of the respondents reported that they had come across inaccurate news online, at least on an occasional basis.

In response to George’s criticisms against the role of prominent social media platforms in combating the spread of virulent hate speech against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Facebook’s head of public policy in Southeast Asia, Alvin Tan, said that they “have invested a significant amount of time” in their efforts to stop the spread of such content on the platform.

“We are hiring […] people to help us know the countries better,” he said.

Citing as an example, he noted that Facebook is “looking for a public policy manager in Cambodia”.

However, he acknowledges that Facebook is not doing enough to contain hate speech circulating against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

Despite having “built into the systems many ways to deal with the content”, he emphasised that there are “billions” of content being posted and shared across the platform on a daily basis.

He believes that Facebook users themselves are a great asset in fighting the spread of disinformation.

“We need to be able to address problematic content in a smarter way, which can be done through humans,” he proposed.

“Humans have a contextual understanding of different cultures” that automated systems and AI might not have, he added.

However, Tan does not discount the importance of technology in combating malicious content on Facebook.

Learning machines, through duplications, have the potential to detect “a piece of disinformation being spread across the platform” and to stop it from spreading once it is found again, he said as an example.

While he validated George’s statement about flocking to another purportedly more ethical social media platform, stating that “ this is an open marketplace”, he questioned if other social media platforms have the same extensive resources and strategy to combat the spread of disinformation as Facebook currently does.

He said that while social media giants such as Facebook do have a responsibility to educate its users on ethical ways to deal with the spread of misinformation across such platforms, he said that they also need the assistance of media academicians and professionals such as George, as well as the users themselves, to achieve a more fruitful outcome in eradicating the spread of fake news.

“We can’t do it alone,” concluding his response.

In the same conference, he also explained that the social media platform have been heavily involved in the efforts of countering violent extremism around region, according to Asian Correspondent.

He added that 99.8 percent of content related to terrorist groups Islamic State and Al-Qaeda were promptly removed by moderators even before users could flag the content.

The removal of fake accounts is also one of Facebook’s ways to combat the spread of deliberate misinformation online.

The company has managed to remove 583 million fake accounts in Q1 2017 alone.

“If you look at the scale, about 2.2 billion monthly users on Facebook 583 million accounts are removed at registration and that is quite a significant number,” he said, adding that it has also removed 700 million instances of spam.

Facebook, according to Tan, is also drafting plans to expand their third-party fact-checking service beyond Malaysia and Singapore to other countries in the ASEAN region such as Indonesia and the Philippines in an effort to combat the spread of fake news throughout Southeast Asia.

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