Illustration by Hannah Robinson
Fake news has become an omnipresent aspect of politics around the globe. It appears that no election, referendum, or debate can happen without this ubiquitous term being brought up. Both Donald Trump and his critics throw accusations of fake news back and forth while the media obsesses over Russian interference and social media trickery. While it is true that democracy relies on truth, this can only be ensured via the use of dangerous and counterproductive interventions being made by the exact people we don’t want moderating discourse: Big tech and the State.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez recently berated Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over his apparent unwillingness to clamp down on fake news on his platform. While this exchange may have provided AOC with an entertaining and viral clip of her speaking truth to power, it raises serious questions over the purported solutions to fake news. It would be manifestly dangerous to encourage the CEOs of large companies to heavily moderate public discourse. Already, in the name of tackling hate speech, companies have silenced people by removing posts or their accounts. Meanwhile debates over what should be considered hate speech rage on in the background. There is no objective legal definition of either hate or fake and any solution that does not operate within strict legal definitions will be open to abuse by those who control the platform.
Governments have worked closely with social media companies in the past to curb “dangerous speech” and regulation has emerged from states and companies. The question then becomes how far will governments go to tackle fake news and how compliant will big social media sites be? In Singapore signposting of information deemed “fake” or “unreliable” is now done by the state. Once again, the problem lies in definitions and the influence this would give governments over the dissemination of information. By not removing content, the state is giving greater authority to some sources of information while discrediting others.
More severe steps would be even more concerning. Penalties, fines, and bans combined with the loose definitions of “dangerous” or “false” speech is the thin edge of a large and destructive wedge. Singapore has already imposed hefty fines and the threat of imprisonment for the deliberate spreading of fake news. Further examples include Russia and Germany where content and platforms can be dealt with via bans, blocking and removal all backed by the threat of fines for social media companies. Notably Russian measures have been introduced alongside the aim of dealing with speech that shows disrespect for the state. It is easy to see how states can easily become increasingly interventionist and how they can use fears surrounding hatred and misinformation to justify their actions. Well-meaning measures to tackle fake news could easily be abused to the detriment of free speech.
Outside the domain of the internet, there have been calls to fine or prosecute politicians who lie and spread “fake news” during election campaigns. A Court case was raised to attempt to prosecute Boris Johnson for alleged lies during the 2016 Brexit referendum. This is once again a dangerous demand to make. In every election, political debate or referendum accusation of lies or misrepresentation of facts are commonplace. It is thus impossible to reliably focus the crosshairs of such a punitive approach to regulating political speech, without allowing political opponents to cynically silence and derail those who stand against them.
It is argued that the internet has made fake news an even more significant problem. However, it also provides a solution. Before the internet people still spread lies and misinformation. Now, thanks to the speed at which information can be shared, people are better equipped to challenge and signpost fake news themselves without the assistance of big tech or the government. Furthermore, third-party fact-checking sites appear to be highly responsive to fake news and as people acclimatise to the post-truth era, people will become better at judging things for themselves. This applies for speech offline as well. We need only look at the challenging of the infamous £350 million bus claim during the Brexit referendum to see that individuals, political opponents and the media are very good at ensuring we get as close to the truth as possible. We do not need the assistance of draconian laws, court hearings or big tech algorithms to protect us from misinformation.