A “report” published on Rappler today announced that the world’s largest social media corporation, Facebook, has enlisted the services of Rappler and Vera Files to provide “fact checking” services in the Philippines. According to the “fact checking process” to be followed under this arrangement, Rappler and Vera Files will be reviewing “flagged” stories and will, determine whether they are “false” or not, and at the same time, apparently wield the power to have these stories “placed lower in the News Feed” to make them “less visible”.
Interestingly, Clair Deevy, Facebook Director for Community Affairs for Asia Pacific sees this initiative as “an important step in instilling digital literacy among Filipino Facebook users.” One needs to challenge this notion, however, from the perspective of whether authorising private organisations to serve as information gatekeepers actually contributes to “digital literacy”. In the real sense of the term, digital literacy involves skills and experience navigating diversity on the Net and applying a critical mind to the consumption of online information. Putting constraints on diversity has never been a solution and is actually more a slippery slope that could easily lead to the much-feared dystopia described in George Orwell’s seminal book 1984.
1984 describes a regime where every bit of information exchanged between its citizens is monitored by an all-seeing “Big Brother” and where a language referred to as “Newspeak” with a vocabulary that excludes certain terms that articulate concepts deemed offensive to the social order is enforced as the lingua franca. Under the arrangement with Facebook, this chilling story finds parallels in how Rappler and Vera Files go on to serve as the “Thought Police” described by Orwell in his book as the enforcers of Newspeak. Indeed, many have already observed that such a real-life Newspeak and Thought Police actually already exist in the form of “politically-correct speech” and the derisively-termed “political correctness (PC) police” many talk about today.
The implementation of “fact checkers” that wield the power to censor Facebook newsfeed content marks a reverse in what had been a trend towards a true free market of ideas that social media was once celebrated for supporting. Like any form of freedom, such a free market of ideas demands that its participants produce and consume sensibly. Under arrangements such as what Facebook, Rappler and Vera Files are pioneering in the Philippines, information traded over Facebook will be policed.
Here is where Filipino users of Facebook should take particular heed. The notable difference between the information policing to be applied by Rappler and Vera Files and the policing done by conventional state forces is that the earlier two are private sector agents who are accountable only to their respective stakeholders. As private agents, Rappler and Vera Files necessarily bring biases to their “police” work inherent in the sets of stakeholders with vested interests in their business operations. These stakeholders are not representative of the broad public base unlike, say, the popular representation applied by a state body like Congress or the popularly-elected officials of the Executive branch of government. In short, Rappler and Vera Files are held to account not by the Filipino public but by private interests.
The irony in all this is that Facebook is already widely-criticised for being a private sector for-profit business enterprise that wields awesome power over the exchange of infomation. It is ironic because further private sector oversight over the control of this information is now being employed in the form of this arrangement with Rappler and Vera Files.
This is a classic case of an ill-framed problem driving the forumlation of a flawed solution that could cause even bigger problems.
Indeed, it is a simple matter of getting back to first principles. Rappler and, to a lesser extent, Vera Files are supposed to be news reporting media services. A news media organisation such as Rappler in particular getting in bed with another media corporation with the explicit intent of applying additional control over information should raise eyebrows rather than assure an already shaken public. More importantly, the question of ownership over the information hosted within Facebook’s data centres has become a hot topic of public debate. In light of that, the idea that a business enterprise such as Rappler adding an additional layer of control over that contested information is something that begs further scrutiny.
At its very root, Facebook’s trouble started when it began to apply artificial influence over its users’ newsfeed. In employing “fact checkers” who, at the same time, also determine what gets shown and what gets suppressed from Facebook users’ newsfeeds merely adds to this fundamental problem. As the venerable Albert Einstein say, you cannot solve a problem using the same thinking that created it.