UN Chief Wants Legal ‘Accountability’ For Social Media Platforms That Amplify ‘False Information’

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The secretary general of the United Nations, António Gutteres, called for social media companies to face “accountability,” including “legal action,” for promoting “false information” in remarks made Wednesday at the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting in Switzerland.

After Gutteres had concluded remarks criticizing political and economic systems that focused primarily on short-term results as opposed to long-term problem solving, WEF Geneva President Børge Brende argued that social media “is maybe not helping when it comes to incentivizing long-term thinking.” Gutteres responded that while social media had led to “fantastic contributions” to the “most noble causes of humankind,” its business model was deeply flawed. (RELATED: Europe Is ‘Way Ahead’ Of The US In Regulating The Internet, Dem Rep Says At ‘Disinformation’ Panel)

“As we know from traditional media, what is news is not when a dog bites a man. What is news is when a man bites a dog,” said Gutteres. “The algorithms and the business model of social media are constructed in such a way that they tend to expand the …  informations, the positions, the ideas that are more extreme, that are more controversial, that create more trouble. And so, I think … and it’s not a question of censorship I think that will solve the problem … the question is the business model needs to be redesigned, the algorithms need to be redesigned, in order not to be based on evil to make profit.”

Brende responded that this was a “good point” and that “when we grew up and read the paper” editors took pride in ensuring accuracy. He went on to argue that “now there’s no editing” and that the responsibility was now on individual readers to assess the veracity of reporting.

The logo of the World Economic Forum (WEF) is seen on window pane at the Congress Center prior to the forum's annual meeting in Davos on January 18, 2016. More than 40 heads of states and governments will attend the WEF in Davos, which this year is focused on "mastering the fourth Industrial Revolution," organisers said. / AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

The logo of the World Economic Forum (WEF) is seen on window pane at the Congress Center prior to the forum’s annual meeting in Davos on January 18, 2016. AFP via Getty Images / FABRICE COFFRINI

Gutteres argued that the responsibility ought to be on social media platforms, noting that if “someone is attacked” inappropriately by traditional media outlets, “there is a possibility to go to the court.” He pushed back on claims by social media platforms that they ought not be held accountable for users’ posts, arguing that controversial content was “amplified” by companies’ algorithms.

“But the truth is that the algorithms are made in such a way that they amplify, in a preferential way, a certain number of things,” Gutteres continued. “And when the algorithm amplifies, then there is, in my opinion, a responsibility, and there should be accountability, including through the legal system, in relation to those situations. At least when false information or other kinds of things are benefited … by the way the algorithm amplifies them. That creates, in my opinion, a responsibility of the platform.”

Social media companies in the United States, such as  Twitter and Google, have long argued that liability protection from users’ posts is essential to their service, amid mounting bipartisan opposition to those protections. As recently as Jan. 12, Google argued in an amicus brief that removing these protections would “undercut a central building block of the internet,” urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the liability protections enshrined in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, according to Axios.

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