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Former Playboy CEO: Tech Companies Have ‘Civic Responsibility’ to Combat Fake News

WASHINGTON – Former Playboy CEO Christie Hefner told PJM that technology companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple have “a responsibility to play a civic role” in combating the dissemination of fake news.

Hefner was in Washington for the Newseum’s Free Expression Awards to accept the Arts and Entertainment award on behalf of her father, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who she said could not travel to the event due to back problems.

During an interview before the ceremony, Hefner said she is concerned about criminal justice reform and women’s rights under the Trump administration.

“We all have to redouble our efforts to make sure – with a much more conservative president and attorney general – that we don’t lose ground,” she said.

Hefner told PJM the public “now more than ever” has to support and defend “free and independent” journalism.

“I think it’s troubling that the administration frequently characterizes the press as propagators of fake news, the enemy of the people – those are the kind of characterizations that occur in closed, not open, societies,” said Hefner, who serves on the board of directors of Center for American Progress Action.

“On the other hand, I think it’s encouraging that everything from cable news viewership to subscriptions to the New York Times are up, so I think the vast majority of people, in whom I have a great deal of confidence, are going to make sure the freedoms that underpin our society are not compromised.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook, who was honored with the Free Speech award at the event, said that fake news is “killing people’s minds.”

“All of us technology companies need to create some tools that help diminish the volume of fake news,” he said in February.

Hefner was asked if she agreed with Cook’s position on fake news.

“It’s a delicate dance for a lot of companies that want to be treated, from a regulation perspective, not as content creators but as, sort of, neutral platforms. But I also think at the end of the day the leadership of those companies, whether it’s a Facebook or a Google or an Apple, understand that everything about how we receive information as well as how we live our lives has been influenced by technology and, therefore, there’s a responsibility to play a civic role,” she said.

“I’m very encouraged by the kinds of statements the people you’ve mentioned have been making about the role they have in not allowing what is sometimes called clickbait disseminated as if it were actually legitimate news. And I am confident in the innovative skills of what are principally American companies to actually tackle – if they really intend to, and I think they do,” she added.

Cook’s handler at the Newseum event told the press on the red carpet that the CEO would not answer any questions. Cook posed for pictures on the red carpet but did not speak to the media on-site.

ABC News Correspondent Martha Raddatz weighed in on the role of technology companies in filtering out fake news online.

“In the area of fake news, if there’s a role for technology, that would be great because it’s a terrible problem. I just got back from overseas and the word spreads faster than you can open your laptop and stop it, so it also is a responsibly of citizens, I think,” Raddatz said. “And I think the more people can do to try to educate themselves about fake news and what it is and what it means and what it doesn’t mean, the better.”

Washington Post Editor Marty Baron said technology companies face some challenges when it comes to fake news.

“I think that they have a responsibility to help in that cause of filtering out fake news. I don’t think it’s an easy proposition. I mean, they’re not editors. They don’t have a staff. I don’t think they actually want to have a staff of editors who are making those kinds of decisions,” Baron said. “They also need to be very careful about not suppressing free speech, so I think this is a more difficult proposition than a lot of people make it out to be. I think they should be more fully engaged in the conversation about how we can distinguish between what’s fake and what’s real.”

PJM also asked Hefner, the CEO of Playboy from 1988 to 2009, to identify the greatest challenges the company faces at this time.

“I believe former CEOs shouldn’t be commenting on the strategies of companies after they leave,” she replied. “I’ll rest with what I accomplished and certainly am happy to accept an award like this for everything my father accomplished.”