Facebook is ‘biased against facts’, says Nobel prize winner

The campaigning Philippines journalist Maria Ressa, who was last week awarded the Nobel peace prize, has launched a stinging attack on Facebook, accusing the social media firm of being a threat to democracy that was “biased against facts” and failed to prevent the spread of disinformation.

She said its algorithms “prioritise the spread of lies laced with anger and hate over facts”.

Ressa, who co-founded the news website Rappler, won the Nobel prize on Friday for her work to “safeguard freedom of expression”, along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.

Ressa said Facebook had become the world’s largest distributor of news, “yet it is biased against facts, it is biased against journalism … If you have no facts, you can’t have truths, you can’t have trust. If you don’t have any of these, you don’t have a democracy.”

Ressa’s rebuke came days after former employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen claimed the company placed profits over people. UK politicians are also raising concerns about Facebook’s ability to protect children from harmful content, with one senior Tory MP accusing it of deploying a “ridiculous scouts-honour system” for verifying the age of its users.

There are now cross-party calls for action from Facebook and the government in the wake of Haugen’s explosive testimony, in which she accused the firm of steering young users towards damaging content. She also suggested that the minimum age for social media accounts should be raised from 13 to 17.

Julian Knight, Tory chair of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, called on Facebook to demonstrate that it was capable of enforcing even its existing rules. “It’s less about the minimum age, more about the way social media companies police this at present,” he said. “They rely on a ridiculous scouts-honour system when actually we need them to actively pursue proper, regulated, robust age assurance. Time is long past that they took responsibility.”

Other parties also called on the government to step in and strengthen measures in its online harms bill, which is designed to protect children from dangerous content. The NSPCC is among those claiming that the current plans do not go far enough. Ministers insist it will force social media companies to remove and limit the spread of harmful content or face fines of billions of pounds.

Jo Stevens, the shadow culture secretary, said that Facebook had proved “time and time again” that it could not be trusted and the government now needed to step in. “It has entirely lived up to its internal strategy to ‘move fast and break things’ no matter what the cost, provided it doesn’t affect its bottom line,” she said.

“Four years on from the Conservative government’s promise of tough legislation against online harms, all we have is a weak and watered-down bill that will still allow Facebook to self-regulate. It doesn’t matter what age limits are adopted, Facebook cannot be trusted to put public safety before its profits.”

Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, called for schools to teach children about how to use social media safely and responsibly.

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The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “Our pioneering online safety bill will make the internet a safer place and is the most comprehensive in the world at protecting children. It will require internet companies to enforce age limits so underage kids can’t access pornography or content that is harmful to them, such as promotion of self harm and eating disorders.”

Facebook denied that the company put profits above people and said it was using sophisticated methods to weed out children not old enough to have an account. “Protecting our community is more important than maximising our profits,” it said. “To say we turn a blind eye to feedback ignores these investments, including the 40,000 people working on safety and security at Facebook and our investment of $13bn since 2016.

“We use artificial intelligence and the age people provide at sign-up to understand if people are telling the truth about their age when using our platforms. On Instagram alone, these processes helped us remove over 600,000 underage users between June and August this year. We will continue to invest in new tools as well as working closely with our industry partners to make our systems as effective as possible.” by Michael Savage

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