The “fake news” scare is making its way around the world, with Germany and Indonesia readying government programs to begin monitoring for and censoring online content they deem “fake.”
Ahead of upcoming elections, the Indonesian government will begin evaluating websites and social media accounts for fake news, while making a stronger push for “social media literacy.”
Germany, ahead of its upcoming parliamentary elections, may pass a law that would allow it to fine Facebook up to 500,000 euros for each day it leaves a story online that has been labeled as fake news. It is also pushing to establish a government agency that will fight the spread of fake news.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended the programs, saying, according to International Business Times, “Political debate is taking place in a completely new media environment. Opinions aren’t formed the way they were 25 years ago. Today, we have fake sites, bots, trolls, things that regenerate themselves, reinforcing opinions with algorithms, and we have to learn to deal with them.”
Fake news, although it has been around for years, only became controversial towards the end of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, when left-leaning news outlets began blaming fake news and Russian propaganda for helping the campaign of President-elect Donald Trump. Prior to this, however, pushes to stop fake news and online rumors were widely regarded as a form of censorship—including by groups and news outlets that are now calling for more regulation of online content to stop its flow.
Actual fake news mainly takes the form of click-bait articles posted by news mills for profit, and it’s mainly these stories that are cited by news outlets touting the fake-news narrative, as their often bizarre-sounding headlines do well to justify the narrative.
The controversy about the topic isn’t around actual fake news, but rather the fact that “fake news” lists have often bundled together fake news websites with right-leaning news websites. PropOrNot, an organization cited by the Washington Post on Nov. 24, labeled over 200 publishers, including Drudge Report, Zero Hedge, and Infowars, as “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season.”
Such sites, especially in Europe, take sometimes strong positions against government policies ranging from taxes to immigration. The concern is that governments could have a means to repress opposing voices simply by including legitimate political opinion and reportage on “fake news” lists.
Until current attempts to target fake news, this was not a problem in Western democracies, though it is common elsewhere. According to a recent report from Freedom House, 67 percent of the world’s internet users live in countries where “criticism of the government, military, or ruling family are subject to censorship.” It states 27 percent of all internet users “live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely ‘liking’ content on Facebook.”
In July 2016, a German couple was taken to court for a post in a Facebook group they administered that included comments critical of the current immigration policy. “The war and economic refugees flood our country. They bring terror, fear, suffering. They rape our women and put our children in danger. Put an end to this!” wrote the founder when he started the group. He was sentenced to nine months in prison on parole, while his wife was fined 1,200 euros. The judge described the group as having “a clear right-wing background.”
In Europe, fears about laws targeting fake news arise from the fact that right-wing parties have seen a surge in support due to growing unease over the rapid influx of Islamic refugees and immigrants from poorer EU countries.
Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, believes fears about fake news are being pushed mainly by news outlets that are trying to undermine alternative news outlets.
“They no longer have a monopoly on news,” he said, noting that in the past it was generally the case that if The New York Times and Washington Post carried the same narrative on an issue, that narrative would become the accepted mainstream opinion.
With the rise of independent news outlets, however, “they are losing control of issues, and they don’t like it,” he said. “They’re losing readership, they’re losing subscribers, and so they’re trying to delegitimize the competition.”
Part of this push focuses on social media sites and online message boards, with Facebook being among the main targets.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially dismissed the media line that fake news helped sway the U.S. election, saying “the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way I think is a pretty crazy idea.”
Zuckerberg has since changed this line, however, and on Dec. 15, 2016, Facebook published a post announcing new initiatives “addressing hoaxes and fake news.” The new initiative has four methods: making it easier for users to report content as “hoaxes”; working with third-party fact checkers to flag news as “disputed”; pushing down stories that have fewer shares after users read them; and analyzing news websites “to detect where policy enforcement actions might be necessary.”
Facebook, which has been accused of censoring conservatives, is also turning to left-leaning fact checkers, including Politifact and Snopes. In May 2016, a former Facebook “news curator” told Gizmodo they “routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential ‘trending’ news section,” and staff were “instructed to artificially ‘inject’ selected stories into the trending news module.”
Some news gets labelled as “fake” because it is overtly biased or leaves out important counter arguments. But Mosher said that creating a system to force websites to report all news, or to impose balance, would in itself amount to censorship.
“The solution is that people have to know to go to other news sources, and to find balance. You can choose favorites on your news feed,” he said. “The only solution is the increasing of the diversity of news sources, not to enforce the narrowing of it.”
Article 19, an organization formed in 1987 to defend free speech, stated in an article that “a number of countries around the world prohibit the dissemination of false information, even if it is not defamatory in nature.” It adds, however, that these laws against fake news are “rare in the more established democracies and have been ruled unconstitutional in some.”
The U.N. Human Rights Council has “reiterated that false news provisions ‘unduly limit the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression,'” notes Article 19.
The U.N. council has upheld this even in cases of news that may cause public unrest, on grounds that “in all such cases, imprisonment as punishment for the peaceful expression of an opinion constitutes a serious violation of human rights.”
The emerging filtering laws are “no better than punishing people,” said Chris Mattmann, who co-created some of the technologies at the heart of the internet and search engines and is now a principal data scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s like what’s happening in China.”
“It’s censorship. … It’s group-think mentality,” said Mattmann. “People ought to be able to post about their political beliefs. They ought to be able to post and share in their social circles.”
‘Fake News’ in China
Critics of the drive to crackdown on fake news in the West look to China as an example of where things can go wrong if those new powers are abused.
In China, posting rumors and news deemed “fake” can lead to prison sentences.
In 2000, the China Finance Information Network was fined $1,807 for re-publishing a report from a Hong Kong news outlet that claimed the vice governor of Hubei Province had accepted bribes from a local company.
In the West, the state cannot simply fine a news outlet, and any lawsuit over a story can be defended against if the outlet can prove the article’s claims are true.
In China, there is no such opportunity for outlets to defend themselves. And while the Hubei vice governor never had to defend himself over the accusations in court, his successor was prosecuted for graft in 2015.
In November 2015, the Chinese Communist Party revised its law to impose sentences of up to seven years in prison for “spreading rumors” about disasters. Human Rights Watch said the rule could be abused.
“The Chinese government has detained netizens who questioned official casualty figures or who had published alternative information about disasters ranging from SARS in 2003 to the Tianjin chemical blast in 2015, under the guise of preventing ‘rumors,'” notes a 2015 report.
According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Congressional Research Institute, the purpose of these controls is mainly to “induce self-censorship.” The Chinese regime, it states, “has displayed an ongoing nervousness about the internet’s influence on Chinese society and politics and has developed an ever-expanding array of controls.”
In a testimony before the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission in May 2014, David Wertime, a senior editor at Foreign Policy, said the CCP uses a blend of tools for censorship, but reserves harsher methods of intimidation and arrest for people with online followings to “dissuade would-be dissidents from sharing their most heterodox thoughts publicly, where they might gain a following.”