10 Myths about Fake News

There are some myths that drive the discussion about Fake News.

  1. Citizens have the right to be informed. Reliably informed.

No, and no. They have the “right to freedom to receive and impart information without interference from the governments”. They do not have a right to be informed in the sense that someone should be delivering citizens information. Much less they have the right to reliable information. The founding fathers of the US and EU did not have the audacity to claim someone will be able to decide on the reliability of the information. Citizens have the freedom to share their ideas and are free to receive ideas from others. Governments should not interfere with that. This is what both the European Convention of Human Rights and Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union claim. These two documents are the baselines against which the HLEG should work.

2. Real is preferred to fake in fundamental human rights charters.

No. Documents about human rights do not give any preference to imparting or receiving fake over real. US constitutional court was clear that “Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea. However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas”. The ECHR wrote “Freedom of expression … it is applicable not only to “information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.

3. There is fake news and there is real news.

No. While there is possible to find something that clearly is fake news (impersonation etc.) and something else that clearly is real news, there is a vast grey area in between that includes all kinds of biased, partisan, motivated reporting. It is hard to define fake news or disinformation in general. It is even harder to claim that a specific piece of information is fake or not.

4. Fake news cause harm.

No. Apart from the pizzagate affair — where a pizza store in the US was harassed — there is no evidence of an objective real world harm caused by fake news. And even less so that harm would be any bigger than harm caused by “real” news. What is usually cited — rise of populism, objections to migrants, Brexit, electing Trump, euroscepticism, climate change denial — are legitimate political opinions. They are not harm. Or at least the EU institutions should not allow themselves to call them harm.

5. Old media is quality media while new media is not.

No. Old media just had the monopoly on distribution and therefore everyone was reading and watching it. Now there is a more free competition and the citizens decide what they like. There is good quality new media and there is poor quality old media. By any objective measure the quality media content available to the citizen has increased dramatically due to the internet and platforms.

6. Platforms have an interest to disseminate fake news.

No. This argument is a bit like “supermarkets have an interest to distribute junk food”. Platforms (and supermarkers) disseminate what users like to consume. It may be real, it may be fake, most is in between. They do not care unless they are made to care by politics or their own agenda. Both are a bigger danger to democracy than some fake news because it constitutes interference with free circulation of information by those with excessive power.

7. Self regulation, co-regulation or regulation of platforms will solve the problem.

No. In matters of freedom of speech, governments should not outsource “interferances” to NGOs (fact checkers, speech monitors) and particularly not to platforms. Platforms should not have the power to obstruct ideas based on their content, as long as it is legal. The only required regulation is such that requires platforms to treat all ideas equally.

8. Oversight of platform algorithms would make the problem go away.

No. If the algorithm used by Google to rank search results or Facebook algorithm that selects what people see at the top of their feeds was transparent and known in advance it would be easier to hack the algorithm and push content to the top. What is important, though, is that platforms should be neutral and impartial and teat all content equally — Content Neutrality.

9. Fake news is a problem.

No. Fake news is a symptom of a problem. The problem is why people do not trust “reliable” information and why they want to read and believe news that some label as fake.

10. Truth is what an independent, impartial, nonpartisan, agnostic, fair … authority finds it to be.

No. Truth is established in a free confrontation of ideas. People have a right to search for truth. They do not have a right to truth. Fact checkers can help in the search for truth but do not define it.

“Tackling fake news” is a combination of two problematic ideas. First, tackling is dangerously close to an euphemism for the interfering in the circulation of ideas and information as prohibited by the Charter and Convention. Second, fake news is hard to define. It is even harder to objectively claim that a piece of news is “fake” and should be tackled. Depends who you ask.

So tackling fake news can mean doing something you should not do in the first place about something you cannot define. And this is a very slippery road to follow.

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