Facebook takes fake news 'very seriously' but denies it is a publisher

Facebook has 1.8 billion active users, 30 million of them in the UK.

The people and the businesses that use the platform share information about themselves which Facebook uses to sell targeted advertising but the company is now using its database of small businesses in an attempt to measure confidence in the economy.

The OECD and The World Bank have collaborated with Facebook to design its Future of Business survey, to-date 140,000 businesses across 33 countries have responded.

The survey has been running since February last year and the most recent report found that small businesses in Britain are more optimistic about the future than anywhere else in the EU except Ireland.

One in five intend to recruit in the months ahead.

"Around the time of the referendum, we did see small business owners were feeling uncertain, they didn't like it." says Nicola Mendlesohn, Facebook's Vice President for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

"But now what we're seeing is that confidence has come back".

Facebook’s findings chime with other surveys and a host of hard economic data (unemployment fell again today) which shows that since Britain voted to Brexit the economy has continued to perform rather well, despite the all the uncertainty about what leaving the EU will mean for businesses and households.

Just before Christmas Facebook announced plans to hire another 500 staff when its new headquarters in London, currently under construction in Fitzrovia, opens later this year.

"London is a really important tech hub" Mendlesohn told me in an interview that was recorded on Monday, a day before Theresa May set out her ambition for Britain outside the single market.

The company's British operation is home to its largest engineering base outside the US. "For us it's business as usual and we are continuing to invest in the UK".

But Facebook is making some changes, to deal with the problem of fake news.

Facebook doesn't employ any journalists but an increasing number of people use it as a news source and, in the last year, information widely shared on Facebook has been exposed as inaccurate.

Last month the Pope condemned a report on Facebook's pages that he had endorsed Donald Trump's campaign for Presidentand the England rugby player James Haskell posted a video denying a rumour circulating on Facebook that he had died of a steroid overdose.

In Germany, a Syrian refugee is suing the company for failing to protect him from falsely being accused of involvement in the Brussels attacks after he posted a selfie with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

The criticism has stung Facebook into action. Users are being encouraged to report information they suspect is bogus, the company is employing third party fact-checkers to vet stories and it’s taking steps to ensure those responsible for writing deliberately misleading articles don't benefit financially.

The measures are being trialled in Germany. Last week Buzzfeed revealed that Facebook was being used to publish fake stories about the German Chancellor, but Nicola Mendelsohn denied the decision has anything to do with the German election, currently proposed for September 24 this year.

The European boss of Facebook told ITV News that the company is taking the issue of fake news "very seriously" but that Facebook is a platform, not a publisher, and isn't liable for the information people post and choose to read.

Nicola Mendelsohn says only a "very small proportion" of news on Facebook is made up. "We've understood that misinformation and the area of hoaxes is something that matters to people and it matters to the community, so we're committed to (tackling) it all over the world...and Germany was one of the first places that we saw we could do that" she insisted.

This matters because an increasing number of people in Britain are getting their news from Facebook (7% of the British population and growing, according to the most recent Ofcom survey). Facebook makes its money from advertising but I put it to Nicola Mendelsohn that the company is now in the news business whether it wants to be or not. She insists Facebook is a tech company.

"No, we're not in publishing, we're a platform that people can come to in order to put their news stories out open and there's a difference" - Nicola Mendelsohn - Facebook, Vice President for Europe, Middle-East and Africa.

Facebook is holding the line that it's not a media company, in part because it doesn't want to be liable for the content its users post. But the runaway nature of its success is causing unintended consequences. With great popularity comes responsibility and greater scrutiny. Facebook is now having to demonstrate it's able to handle both.