This post was co-authored by Andreas Reventlow.
Hardly a day goes by without another story on fake news. With the excessive coverage dedicated to it globally, you would think it is something new. But ‘fake news’ is not new and the ways we try to combat it only highlight our inadequacies in dealing with much bigger problems.
As the US Presidential Election progressed, public fixation on the term grew and so did ambitions to try and combat. In Germany, one suggested approach has been to legislate against it, forcing social media companies to delete fake news posts or face 500,000 EUR fines. Sweden also threatened to initiate legal action against Facebook unless it started cracking down on fake news.
That might sound appealing to some. By simply outlawing fake content, we could have a news ecosystem where the information published is guaranteed to be true. As it turns out, legislating against fake news is a really bad idea. Several countries tried it back when it was called ‘false news’, a label which has served for years as a handy means of pretext for many a despot seeking to silence the opposition.
The main problem with legislating against fake news is that definitions of what constitutes fake (or false) news will generally be overly broad, leaving them open to interpretation and abuse by authorities. This puts at risk the challenging of viewpoints, which lies at the heart of a democratic society. They know that in Zambia, where a national court declared its false news law unconstitutional in 2014. And they know it in Canada, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and the United States, where supreme courts have all held that false news provisions are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression.
A softer approach to combatting fake news was announced by Facebook in December last year. It makes use of third-party fact checking organizations, which will look into user-submitted reports of fake news. This is part of a package of other projects including tackling news illiteracy and improving the skills of journalists. Whether it will be successful is hard to say, but Facebook’s initiatives certainly represent a more constructive approach than simply banning fake news. Unfortunately, they are still merely a band-aid on a much bigger ailment: people’s lack of trust. As it turns out, labeling fake news stories as fake is unlikely to stop people from believing they are true. Why? Because people do not trust the ‘experts’ who make this call for them.
And why should they? In January, the European Union task force East StratCom, warned that Russia is seeking to influence the outcome of several key elections in Europe this year with ‘enormous, far-reaching (…) disinformation campaigns.’ Amongst 2,500 fake news stories uncovered by the task force are conspiracy theories over who shot down Flight MH17 over Ukraine to claims that Sweden had banned Christmas lights for religious reasons and that the EU was planning to ban snowmen as “racist”. By spreading vast amounts of conflicting messages, these disinformatzya campaigns seek to persuade audiences that there are so many versions of events that it is impossible to find the truth, impossible to find information one can really trust. The point is to pollute the news ecosystem to make readers question everything and to undermine the very notion of truth itself.
People’s difficulties with trusting information is a much bigger problem than fake news. It is also a central premise of the digital age as the “Gutenberg Parenthesis” theory highlights, arguing that the digital age partly represents a return to medieval ways of communicating, before Gutenberg’s movable type facilitated easy printing and revolutionised the world. The new printed word had a different authority that oral communication did not possess. But then the internet happened and we are now communicating through platforms that resemble marketplaces where everyone is shouting, and where those who want to undermine their opponents can simply hire an army of trolls to do the work for them.
Labelling content as fake news may help some to navigate the ecosystem of news, but it represents a shallow response to much larger underlying problems. Legislating against fake news may make its controversy disappear for a moment, but has a potentially chilling effect on freedom of expression. Neither approach will help people figure out whom or what to trust. There are no easy or quick fixes, but if the ambition is to address fake news in all its forms, there is a need to focus on the underlying issues rather than prescribing symptomatic treatment. It will require us to go beyond scratching the surface of the deeper problems of our own bias and inability to reach across the aisle and find common ground with the people we disagree with.
* Nani Jansen Reventlow is a human rights lawyer and Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Andreas Reventlow is the Programme Development and Digital Freedom Advisor at International Media Support and works with journalists and human rights defenders to promote standards of professional journalism, digital security and internet freedom.