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Social media firms under pressure to curb fake news in the UK

Social media companies such as Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. are facing growing pressure in Britain to remove accounts spreading fake news.

A big part of the problem is the lack of collaboration between the internet firms and academics working to curb the problem, a Dec. 19 hearing, as part inquiry into the phenomenon of fake news by the UK Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, heard.

"There needs to be more cooperation with the social platforms … and a bit more openness with the availability of data that we can get," said Professor Kalina Bontcheva, professor of text analysis at the University of Sheffield, who is working on algorithms that detect fake news accounts and sources.

She explained that while academics have access to open data sets on platforms such as Twitter and Reddit Inc., extracting data that helps them monitor and detect fake accounts is still not possible on Facebook.

Echoing this view, Samantha Bradshaw of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford argued that there is a big financial incentive for social media companies to clean up their platforms.

"Their business model is based on advertising … advertisers don't want to sell ads to fake people because fake people aren't going to buy products," Bradshaw explained.

"If platforms are a lot more responsible in cleaning up those profiles and getting rid of the accounts that don't exist, advertisers will have more confidence in doing business with them," she added.

Bontcheva and Bradshaw's comments follow calls for Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet Inc.'s YouTube to do more to tackle extremist material on their platforms.

Earlier this year, a report published by the House of Commons home affairs committee, led by MP Yvette Cooper, concluded that the rise in online hate and abuse on social platforms had gone "unchecked" and "unpoliced" for too long. The same committee held a hearing Dec. 19, questioning legal representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Earlier this week, growing complaints of social media firms' conduct pushed British media watchdog Ofcom into declaring it is primed to regulate internet companies in order to level the playing field with traditional media publishers.

However, Bradshaw warned that the "dangers" of overregulating social media might "outweigh the benefits."

"If you start putting restrictions on social media platforms [as] publishers, it might have a very chilling free speech effect because they might then be forced to overregulate what people are sharing on social media and expressing," she explained.

Bradshaw therefore urged the government to consider other "ways to regulate social media in a way that would be healthy for democracy.