Spanish Government Moves Ahead With First 'Fake News' Prosecution

from the minimum-six-months-for-being-wrong-about-stuff dept

In 2018, the Spanish government amended its Data Protection Law to align it with European regulations like GDPR. While doing so, it slipped in an amendment that targeted "fake news," adding to an already-problematic law that enshrined the "right to be forgotten" and mandated personal data deletion after a certain period of time.

The amendment made the bizarre assertion that the existence of fake news somehow harmed Spanish citizens' free speech rights.

The text of the amendment proposes making administrators of social media, digital platforms and similar services the guarantors of truthful information. To this end, “effective protocols” should be adopted to, if necessary, “eliminate content that violates the constitutional right to freely communicate or receive truthful information through any means of communication.”

The government could have limited itself to fighting questionable speech with less-questionable speech. In fact, it did do this. It hired fact checkers to debunk misinformation being spread on social media ahead of the 2019 elections. The fact-checkers performed real-time debunkings to slow the dissemination of misinformation by political groups and their allies.

Spain elected a new government last Sunday. But, on Saturday, the day when the law forbids campaigns and candidates asking for votes, social media (especially WhatsApp and Facebook) was completely flooded by misinformation.

Newtral and Maldito Bulo, the two verified members of the International Fact-checking Network, were there to work hard.

On the last week of the campaign, they both live fact-checked two TV debates in a row — each one of them with four candidates.

But that's not all the government did. It sent the cops out to literally police speech.

A team of more than 100 Spanish police officers will trawl the internet for signs of fake news and cyber attacks in the build-up to next month’s snap election, the interior ministry said on Friday.

Officials will keep a particularly close eye on Facebook, its WhatsApp messaging app, Twitter and other social media networks under a security plan to protect the vote, the ministry added.

It's unclear what the punishment is for spreading fake news. The law provides for a jail sentence of up to two years for violators, but that's tied to the publication of information that "compromises the dignity" of a protected group. It doesn't say anything specifically about fake news.

All that seems to be clear at this point is that the "effective protocols" involve government prosecutors. Fake news has been addressed successfully by government fact checkers but now this same government has decided to punish someone for saying the wrong things online.

Spanish public prosecutors said Friday they have filed the country’s first lawsuit against the spread of ‘fake news” which targets a woman who tweeted a video falsely claiming to show migrant children harassing a teacher in Spain.

The video, which shows several students overturning desks and insulting a teacher, was in fact filmed in May at a school in Brazil in Sao Paulo state, AFP’s fact-checking team established in September.

Since the government has already publicly denounced the posting as fake and published information about its true origin, it's unclear why it felt the need to move forward with a lawsuit against the person posting it. But it's doing it anyway. Right now, only a judge stands between the Spanish government and its first fake news prosecution.

A judge at a court in Sant Feliu de Llobregat near Barcelona will now have to decide whether or not to accept the lawsuit. Public prosecutors can appeal if the judge decides against hearing the case.

It seems like the same goal could be achieved with the public debunking that has already happened, which amply demonstrated this person isn't a trustworthy source of information. This prosecution needlessly adds injury to insult. Spanish citizens are going to engage in a lot more self-censorship if they believe they might be prosecuted simply for being wrong. And they'll engage in ever more self-censorship if they think anything they say might be perceived as "humiliating" to a protected group.

Filed Under: fake news, free speech, gdpr, misinformation, spain


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2020 @ 10:52am

    So, now in Spain their will be unofficial fake news, and official fake news, with the difference publishing the first gets you in trouble, while posting the second advances a political career.


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