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‘Social networks – not governments – need to regulate fake news’

Punishing social networks for failing to take down fake stories with legal sanctions will be ineffective against ongoing news epidemic, the chief executive officer of BBC Global News has said.

Jim Egan argued that the social networks, while not entirely at fault for the issue, needed to take firmer regulatory action themselves to prevent governments implementing legislative measures that could affect freedom of speech.

His comments came in the wake of Germany’s announcement that it intends to fine social media giants such as Facebook and Google up to S$80 million for failing to remove “illegal” and defamatory content.

Meanwhile, Singapore’s government has also announced plans to create tougher laws combatting the spread of fake stories.

Speaking to Mumbrella Asia during a visit to Singapore, Egan said: “I totally understand why governments are thinking that something must be done. In the end, because of the significant role social networks have in people’s news consumption, they will start to have a bigger role in the regulatory landscape.

“Some of the measures that certain countries have introduced – so fines if fake news isn’t taken down in 24 hours – don’t seem workable in practice to me. You run up against tricky principles like freedom of speech. But, I’m in favour of in the end these platforms recognising the significance they have in news and information to have some kind of control over this.”

“I believe there will be more regulation over the next few years, but it will be better if regulators take a long-term approach.”

He added: “In the last six months, Facebook and Google have really woken up to it. Facebook has been working hard on its algorithms; in fact Facebook and Google combined have 13,000 people working on the whole fake news spotting and verification issue. So it’s unfair to say the social network aren’t doing anything.”

According a recent survey carried out by the BBC, 84 per cent of Singaporeans said they feared the rise of fake news. Meanwhile a recent government poll said that 91 per cent of Singaporeans are supportive of stronger laws to “ensure the removal and correction of fake news”.

Although Egan was unable to give a reason for the strength of feeling in Singapore, he said it was a sign that the issue was no longer confined to just “an American obsession”.

“In general we were quite interested and quite surprised about the level [of fear] in the Asian region overall,” he said. “Certainly for a while, fake news seemed to be mostly an American obsession –  especially around this time last year in the run-up to the presidential election. But there is a very widespread concern about this issue in Asia and Singapore seems to have the highest concern about it. It reflects that while Singapore is perhaps relatively small, it is extremely connected to the rest of the world, and fake news is ultimately a global issue.”

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