'Fake News' Now Means Whatever People Want It To Mean, And Legislating It Away Is A Slippery Slope Toward Censorship

from the truth-is-whatever-I-say-it-is dept

The discussion about "fake news" certainly began with good intentions, with participants earnestly focused on how disinformation, shitty journalism and bullshit clickbait were filling the noggins of a growing segment of the public for whom critical thinking was already a Sisyphean endeavor. The solution for this problem was never as clean and easy as most of the conversations suggested, especially given that Americans -- thanks in large part to our struggles with education quality and funding -- have never been particularly adept at spotting disinformation, much less understanding how you expose, undermine and combat it at scale.

None of these problems are new. Bad journalism and propaganda have plagued publishing and governments for thousands of years. Donald Trump's violently-adversarial relationship with facts and Vladimir Putin's warehouses full of paid internet trolls have simply taken the conversation to an entirely new level in the internet age. But it's becoming increasingly clear that many of the folks who believe they can somehow legislate this problem away may be doing more harm than good.

In fact, much of the moral panic surrounding the initial fake news conversation has quickly degenerated into something that vacillates quickly between comedy and terror. As we've consistently pointed out, a growing number of countries have moved to make fake news illegal -- even before they've taken time to understand what it actually is. Germany's potential plan to make publishing fake news illegal teeters dangerously close to censorship. Letting politicians define "fake news" (with an obvious incentive toward defining it in their favor) should be a fairly obvious slippery slope.

We've already watched as Donald Trump and his supporters have whined endlessly that absolutely any information they don't like should be mindlessly deposited into the "fake news" bin -- without the pesky and annoying effort required to intelligently analyze each piece of data or reporting on its merits. Even over in Syria, Bashar al-Assad has found the term useful when trying to dodge accusations of systemic torture and massive executions:

And while lies and disinformation are the obvious refuge of authoritarians (or worse), Democracies shouldn't believe they're above the fray when it comes to the fight against fake news being bastardized and weaponized. The line between fighting disinformation and depressing dissent is, as the Washington Post recently noted, significantly thinner than many of our supposedly civilized Democracies would like to pretend:

"Of course, Europe’s established democracies have little in common with the Soviet Union or other illiberal regimes. But the legal tools proposed by European politicians to suppress fake news sound alarmingly like those used by authoritarian governments to silence dissent. This is dangerous. Not only are such measures incompatible with the principle of free speech, but also they set precedents that could quickly strengthen the hand of the populist forces that mainstream European politicians feel so threatened by."

And while there's this belief that these legislative assaults on fake news will somehow put the seedier, more truth-averse news outlets in their place, there's a very real threat of the exact opposite happening (something you could argue is already happening in many countries):

"Above all, rather than strengthening established media institutions, banning fake news might very well undermine them in the eyes of the public. If alternative outlets are prosecuted or shut down, mainstream media risk being seen as unofficial propaganda tools of the powers that be. Behind the Iron Curtain, nonofficial media outlets had more credibility than official media in spite of the fact that not everything they published was accurate or fact-checked. The hashtag #fakenews could become a selling point with the public if it were banned rather than rigorously countered and refuted."

Meanwhile, both the United States and Russia continue to lead the world when it comes to showing how having government dictate what media coverage is or isn't true is a losing proposition for all of us. In Russia, while one arm of the government is busy pumping out propaganda twenty-four hours a day (and denying it), another wing of the government has begun more seriously deriding stories and facts Putin doesn't like. This week, Russia launched a new section of the government's website dedicated to highlighting "fake news" with a giant red stamp:

"Just in case anybody missed the point, each article on the Foreign Ministry website carried a big red label reading “FAKE” in English and a line saying that the information in the article “does not correspond to reality." Russia actually announced something of a fake news double whammy, since the defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, told Parliament on Wednesday that the military had created a special task force assigned to wage information warfare, although he did not provide any details."


None of this is to say we shouldn't work tirelessly to help truth regain a foothold. Obviously, teaching classroom critical thinking in the new global media age should be a priority, since actually being able to identify propaganda has never been a U.S. forte (especially if it's originating from the States, a well-versed expert on the subject). And many of the efforts by Facebook and others to cull obvious bullshit from news feeds while adding fact-check systems could prove useful. People also need to simply pause and realize that the internet is still relatively new, and it's going to take media -- and the truth -- time to find its footing in the face of oceans of digitized bullshit.

That said, it might be a good idea to make sure we're not making things worse as we learn. And it shouldn't require too much pesky critical thinking to realize that the efforts to combat "fake news" can be subverted to aid those trying to rip truth from its very foundation, or that letting politicians define what truth is may only expedite our Orwellian descent toward chilling legitimate expression.

Filed Under: censorship, fake news, journalism

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Feb 2017 @ 10:57am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Look, I read all sorts of news, I actually do not pay much attention to the sources because that is a pointless event.

    Libertarian news sources will cater to their readers.
    TD caters to their readers.
    Fox caters to their readers.
    CNN caters to their readers.

    Most of everything I read everywhere mostly leaves me with more questions than any facts or answers. You can make more than enough lies up using facts, just by omitting specific pieces of information. There have been more than enough thought experiments that show how much gravy is in the human mind.

    I often refer to the Placebo effect. Because I am independent, I feel that I will never get an honest news report. I view most outlets as sensationalizing and obtuse. I like both John Oliver and Ben Shapiro. They tend to do convincing work with the things they report on. I do not necessarily agree with their finds on everything, but I like what they come up with. I never had a problem with just about any major news outlet either. I don't hate CBS, CNN, Fox, BBC, Al-Jazeera, or any other news agency. I just look at the content and try to learn about what I see based on other sources.

    Like most things, everything is outside of my capabilities ore scope of understanding. But many here at TD foolishly think many things are "within" their understand and they simply are not. Most here are armchair generals that know next to nothing, misunderstand what little history they likely don't even know, participate in bashing others for no other reason than to be part of the "in crowd". I have been there, but I stopped that shortly after 1st grade when I told a lie big enough to teach me the value of truth and why having integrity is important. Now, I refuse to join mob crowds looking to head hunt anything. I have found that humans in general are always seeking to form groups and then use that safety to attack others they don't like or disagree with. Being factually right, wise, merciful, or intelligent are not even considered.

    You can rob a bank or rape and murder and be welcomed back to society, but you will be forever scared if you are famous (enough) with having uttered any racial slurs for a protected class... and THAT is what is truly sad.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: I Invented Email
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.