Now Germany Wants To Criminalize Fake News
from the this-is-a-bad-idea dept
Oh boy. Ever since people started ridiculously blaming fake news on Facebook for the election outcome, we’ve pointed out that these calls will be used to justify censorship of opposing views — and that’s a very bad thing. We’ve already seen authoritarian countries with long histories of punishing and silencing dissent jump on the “fake news is a problem!” bandwagon to justify heavy handed censorship. Both China and Iran have pointed to “fake news” as a reason for new internet censorship plans.
But, of course, now the disease is spreading, and spreading quickly. Over in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has now endorsed a proposal to criminalize publishing fake news. Let’s repeat that: she’s endorsing a plan to make it a criminal offense to publish “fake news.”
Angela Merkel is as good as her word: the German chancellor is backing a new law that would ban fake news stories distributed via social media, according to German newspapers. The move comes amid growing concern that fake news on social media influenced the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, and could play a similar role in Germany?s own upcoming elections.
Politicians from Merkel?s conservative Christian Democratic Union are proposing a law that would require social media sites to immediately remove fake news stories and make the publishing of such articles a criminal offense. The CDU currently governs in coalition with the leftwing Social Democratic Party as well as its own sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, giving the government an easy majority and making it very likely that the law will pass, perhaps with some revisions after parliamentary debate.
This is an out and out pro-censorship law which will be abused. And the really scary thing is that with all this hype about “fake news,” it appears the general public in traditionally open democracies may cheer on this plan for government-mandated censorship. A new Pew Center study suggests the hype around fake news has tons of Americans believing it’s a much bigger problem than it really is. But the really scary part is that, according to the survey, many believe that the government should be responsible for stopping fake news. In fact, more people would put a large part of the burden on the government than on internet companies or… (wait for it…) the public themselves:
If you can’t see that, 45% of respondents say that “a great deal of responsibility” for “preventing completely made up news from gaining attention” should fall on “government, politicians and elected officials.” 42% say the same thing for platforms and 43% apply that standard to the public themselves. Obviously, these numbers are pretty close, suggesting they could be seen as about equal — but that’s still ridiculous. The government should not be in the business of deciding what is “fake news.” It would fundamentally upset one of the basic concepts of freedom of expression.
Again, none of this is to say that timelines flooded with blatantly hoax stories (again, the definition of “fake news” seems to morph with what one’s beliefs are…) is a good thing. And it seems that approaches like the one that Facebook is now taking seem perfectly reasonable (providing more information, rather than blocking, and combining user feedback with expert fact checking to vet stories that deserve additional informational flags). But the idea that the government should take responsibility leads to ridiculous ideas like criminalizing “fake” news stories, which will only justify crackdowns like the ones in China and Iran even more.
As the Washington Post’s always astute Margaret Sullivan notes, politicians are the last people who should be judging what is, and what is not, fake news — since it allows them to tilt the scales on issues directly impacting their own jobs:
Government involvement is a seriously bad idea. It could put the question of what constitutes real news and what constitutes fake news in the hands of those who may be most affected by it.
Indeed, this seems to directly be the case with the plan to criminalize fake news in Germany. As the quote above noted, the reason it’s even up for debate there is because of “concern” that fake news could impact the upcoming election. Totally false news that people fall for can certainly be annoying — but (again) we’re mostly talking about confirmation bias. People believing stories because it fits their existing worldview. It’s not like they’d change their position magically if they didn’t see the fake news stories. And, even if they did, that’s no excuse for criminalizing fake news — which is only going to create a massive headache, and put freedom of the press and freedom of expression at serious risk.
Though, it will be amusing when German officials try to charge The Onion with criminal offenses…