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 decision 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:
— The Atlantic (@TheAtlantic) February 10, 2017
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” in a not so subtle fashion:
“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 there aren’t solutions. 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 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.