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False stories threaten the integrity of journalistic institutions, but attempts to stop them can border on censorship. Liam Glen writes on the dilemma of dealing with fake news.
May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. The theme of 2019 is Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation. This touches on the ongoing problem of fake news (in the sense of deliberate disinformation, rather than news outlets that one dislikes), which harms the work of legitimate journalists.
The problem is happening around the world, but it gained infamy in the US during the 2016 presidential election. The Russian government invested in false stories to sow political discord. Opportunists, like a group of young people in Veles, North Macedonia, spread fake news to make a quick buck from ad revenue. Conspiracy theorists disseminated stories like Pizzagate.
All of this stands opposed to journalism’s goal of creating an informed public. Yet, when it comes to regulation, it can be hard to draw the line between real and fake news.
Perils of Government Action
In theory, banning fake news does not have to imperil freedom of speech. One cannot yell “fire!” in a crowded theater. It could be just as reasonable to say that no one can broadcast false stories on social media about a pedophile slave trade in a pizza restaurant.
This year’s World Press Freedom Day is based in Ethiopia, whose current government has gained acclaim for freeing jailed journalists. Lawmakers, however, are contemplating new laws to regulate disinformation and hate speech. They say that this will not harm freedom of speech, but rather protect the people’s right to accurate information.
But, as reported by Reporters Without Borders, autocratic governments can easily use the claim of “fake news” as a pretext for silencing opposition.
Laws against fake news are also taking shape in the developed world. The NezDG law in Germany intends to remove hateful content from social media, but this has been overshadowed by concerns over inconsistent enforcement.
Fake news is dangerous, but one can question what role the government has in taking it down, much less giving out fines or even jail sentences to perpetrators.
In addition, no enforcement mechanism is perfect. Any young person today knows of the FBI’s ineptitude at tackling illegal streaming services, for example.
Even if they were a good idea, government-led approaches would face popular opposition and legal challenges in countries like the US, where the First Amendment guarantees wide-reaching press freedoms.
What Can Social Media Do?
Except in extreme circumstances, the government should keep its hands off the press.
Meanwhile, most fake news spread through social media, which has led many to conclude that companies like Facebook and Twitter should lead the charge in regulating them.
The most egregious fake news stories are those disseminated by government-led disinformation efforts and by money-seeking opportunists. They use demonstrably untrue headlines (like the Pope endorsing Donald Trump) and spread through bots and algorithms.
Social media companies can get rid of these using innovative solutions. This includes algorithms to spot false stories, or changes in the ad system to reduce the revenue that can come from them. This will not stop the problem entirely, but it can prevent false stories from becoming endemic.
However, the situation gets more complicated when dealing with conspiracy theorists and others who spread fake news out of genuine conviction rather than naked opportunism.
Twitter’s banning of Alex Jones in 2018 created a furor over free speech. While Twitter is a private company, critics say that its size amounts to it being a public platform. If it controls who is allowed on its site, it controls what opinions the world hears. The debate started anew when Facebook banned Jones and other promoters of hate speech on May 2.
It is hard to feel sympathy for Jones. He has built his career on outrageous lies, most notably defaming families affected by Sandy Hook shooting, just so he can sell questionable merchandise on his show. Even if social media sites are public forums, every public space has some basic standards of decency.
Still, the standards must be applied fairly and consistently. While I have no problem with Jones’s banning, I am actually encouraged by the movement that rose up in support of him.
Social media companies need the power to keep junk off their platforms, but the best assurance of a well-informed public is a strong civil society that stands in favor of real news and against censorship and misinformation. If social media companies cannot ban Alex Jones without creating massive controversy, they have no chance of getting away with censorship of legitimate commentators.