Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
We are off the air in Vernal. While we work to resume service, listen here or on the UPR app.

Ex-Head Of Twitter News: Social Media Companies Alone Shouldn't Regulate 'Fake News'


There's been a lot of soul searching in the social media world since the presidential election. How much did fake news stories inform voters' choices? And did social media allow hate speech, which may have deepened the divides in this country? Two big things happened over the past few days. Twitter announced new rules to try to curtail hate speech and suspended several accounts linked to the so-called alt-right movement, which has been associated with white nationalism. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg underscored what his company is doing to stop the spread of so-called fake news.

To talk more about this and the broader role of social media in our democracy, I'm joined by Vivian Schiller. She's the former head of news and journalism partnerships at Twitter and also the former CEO of NPR. Vivian, thanks so much for being with us.

VIVIAN SCHILLER: Hi, glad to be with you.

MARTIN: I want to start by asking you about Mark Zuckerberg's statement. And I'm going to quote here. He said, we will continue to work with journalists and others in the news industry to get their input, in particular to better understand their fact-checking systems and learn from them. You've been on both sides of this. What should the relationship be between mainstream journalism and social media companies, especially when it comes to this idea of misinformation?

SCHILLER: First of all, there's a lot of definitions flying around of what we mean when we say fake news. And there's also a lot of pitfalls and I think some misguided recommendations that are out there about what Facebook and Twitter and the others should and shouldn't do. It's very difficult and I, you know, recommend sort of very thoughtful slow going for everyone.

MARTIN: So let's go slow in the conversation. What is fake news, as you understand it?

SCHILLER: So my definition of fake news is a content-like object that is a story, an article, a video, a tweet that has been fabricated, completely invented out of thin air, intentionally for the purpose of misleading. So an example from the election, from the campaign was when a so-called news organization called the Denver Guardian - which, by the way, doesn't exist - wrote an article and pushed it on social media that said that the pope had endorsed Donald Trump. That's the perfect definition of fake news. It was intentionally designed to deceive.

MARTIN: So what has been lumped into that category that shouldn't belong there?

SCHILLER: Well, lumped in there is a lot of stuff, including stories that were intended to be serious journalism but just got it wrong, statements that are made by public officials that are wrong but are reported. And then there's this whole sort of mushy area in the middle of stories that are missing context, might be laden with innuendo, missing facts.

MARTIN: So you say there's fake news and then there's just bad journalism (laughter).

SCHILLER: Well, that's the short answer, yeah.

MARTIN: So if you set aside the shoddy journalism - which I can understand would be very hard for any social media company to try to fix or prevent the spread of - but just taking the idea of just outright false news, these fake news stories like the one you cited, do social media companies have an obligation to try to prevent the spread of those stories?

SCHILLER: Let me just say I think it would be a mistake for social media companies to try to, on their own, determine or deign what is a fake news story and what isn't and shut it off, or what's a good news organization or a bad news organization. That's a very, very slippery slope.

MARTIN: Let's talk about your former employer, Twitter, which announced just a few days ago that it's going to make it easier to report abusive language on its site. It also suspended, as we mentioned, several accounts linked to the alt-right. Do you think these changes are a good idea?

SCHILLER: Well, those are two very, very different things, so let's separate them. The first one, which is allowing a greater range of tools to prevent abuse on Twitter, I applaud Twitter for that move and I encourage them to keep going. The second action they took is much trickier and frankly concerns me a little bit. Twitter has selected certain Twitter accounts - most of them are from the so-called alt-right - and has suspended them.

The problem is there is very little transparency and consistency when it comes to what accounts Twitter is suspending and which they are not. As long as there is an even playing field for all and the rules are clearly understood, that would be a good thing. We are not there yet. There's more to do.

MARTIN: Do you still believe in these sites in social media as a harbinger for good when it comes to protecting democratic values?

SCHILLER: A hundred percent. The way that information is shared around the world, important information that we might not ever see or hear - and I would hate for us to go backwards on that. Does it come with a whole bunch of problems? You bet.

MARTIN: Vivian Schiller's the former head of news and journalism partnerships at Twitter. Thanks so much, Vivian.

SCHILLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.