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A Cure Worse Than the Disease

The “fake news” hysteria is unleashing a wave of free-speech crackdowns worldwide.

Journalists Dan Balz, Judy Woodruff, and Bret Baier participate in a discussion on "Americans and the Media: Sorting Fact from Fake News," January 23, 2018 in Washington DC. Win McNamee / Getty

Around the world — from the West to the global south — governments are granting themselves the power to unilaterally block websites, remove content from the internet, and potentially criminalize certain topics of reporting, all with the supposed goal of putting a stop to a supposed onslaught of “fake news” that is undermining democracy. It’s an alarming development, and one that serves as a reminder of the perils of the Western world’s ongoing hyperbolizing of the threat of “fake news.” Western Europe’s three most powerful countries are now in various stages of seizing unprecedented power to censor the press. First was Germany, which last June passed the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (Network Enforcement Act), or NetzDG for short, threatening platforms like Facebook and Twitter with fines of up to €50 million if they fail to remove certain undesirable postings flagged by users within a time frame of between twenty-four hours and seven days.

Though mainly concerned with hate speech, curbing “fake news” is a part of its stated mission (it’s in the bill’s preamble) and fear over potential Russian meddling in Germany’s September 2017 election (which never ended up happening) served as the impetus for its passage. As Heiko Maas, Germany’s former justice minister who pushed the law, said: “Anyone who tries to manipulate the political discussion with lies needs to be aware [of the consequences].”

Maas himself is a Social Democrat, which means it was actually a prominent liberal who was behind the widely criticized law. In what would turn out to be a global pattern, the law was also rushed into passage in just six months so it could be in place when Germany held its election.

The results have been predictably shambolic. In the law’s first test case, Facebook and Twitter blocked the accounts of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party’s deputy leader for racist posts, and Twitter then suspended the account of a satirical magazine that had made fun of her. Since then, Facebook has suspended the account of a prominent representative of several Jewish groups for posting a video of a man receiving antisemitic abuse, YouTube removed a Project Syndicate video examining the revival of Holocaust revisionism, and amusingly, Twitter deleted one of Maas’s own tweets calling an anti-immigration author an “idiot” after people complained, a neat demonstration of the very flaws the law’s critics warned about.

None of this seems to have worried liberal golden boy Emmanuel Macron, who, fresh off making the French government’s repressive emergency powers permanent, is now in his own words pushing “to protect liberal democracies” by giving authorities the power to remove content and block websites during an election. It’s a personal matter for Macron, who was the subject of a number of defamatory pieces of fake news during his election bid. Given that Macron’s officials have already repeatedly shown hostility to the French press’s attempts to do its job, it’s an ominous development.

Most recent — though more vague — has been a pledge by Theresa May’s government in the UK to start a “dedicated national-security communications unit” to combat “disinformation by state actors and others.” There are next to no details about the proposed agency, but it’s worth noting that a similar Cold War-era agency busied itself with tasks like undermining Indonesia’s leftist president Sukarno, countering the New Left, and opposing the Caribbean Black Power movement.

Censorship by Another Name

But most alarming have been developments in non-Western democracies where the protection of democratic rights and principles is already fragile. In these countries, authoritarian-minded leaders have keenly taken advantage of the Western-led panic over “fake news” to push for laws granting them greater power to censor.

The most high-profile of these has been Brazil, a country led by a man charged with corruption (twice) and obstruction of justice and which has seen the imprisonment of its most prominent left-wing opposition leader and the assassination of a left-wing political activist and city councilor that has more than a whiff of police involvement. In this climate, Brazil’s Federal Police have announced their plans to “identify and punish the authors of ‘fake news’” in advance of the country’s presidential election, including using a law instituted by the country’s former military dictatorship to do so if new legislation isn’t passed.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government has the distinction of actually passing an “anti-fake news” law, an expansive one that punishes anyone spreading such material, including foreigners, and can send violators to prison for as long as ten years. The law has been widely criticized as a way of shutting down reporting on a corruption scandal involving the current prime minister during the country’s upcoming election (ten different websites that reported on the scandal were already blocked by the government before the law was passed), and was fast-tracked in the country’s parliament.

The Philippines’ Duterte has, unsurprisingly, also joined the fray, signing into law amendments that increased penalties against people and organizations publishing “any false news which may endanger the public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the state.” A separate bill would have seen a maximum jail term of ten years for such violators. India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi also floated a measure that would have seen journalists stripped of their accreditation for creating or spreading fake news, before quickly withdrawing it among a public outcry. And the governments of Indonesia and Singapore are looking at similar measures to deal with the scourge of fake news.

And for What?

Such measures are of course going to be harmful to basic press freedom and public accountability. But they’ll be particularly perilous for the Left. Wherever they exist, left-wing news outlets are typically oppositional ones that fall outside the bounds of their countries’ political orthodoxies, and they tend to be small, poorly funded, and lack the institutional heft of mainstream outlets. That makes them easy targets for delegitimization — the first step to declaring a piece of reporting “fake news,” regardless of its actual veracity.

We’ve already seen this in the way the algorithm changes spurred on by the ongoing “fake news” panic have tended to hurt small, independent, and typically left-wing news outlets. Google’s changes to its algorithm, intended to undercut the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation, had the knock-on effect of drastically reducing web traffic to legitimate websites like Alternet, Truthout, Consortium News, and the World Socialist Web Site.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that Facebook’s changes to its news feed — deprioritizing news outlets in response to global hyperventilation over “fake news” — ended up decimating nongovernmental news outlets while, ironically, facilitating the spread of “fake news” as users shared misinformation among themselves, and attempts by more authoritative voices to debunk such misinformation were suppressed by the algorithm changes.

And all this for what? Now is a good a time as any to recall that for all the millions of words devoted to the subject, it’s still not clear how effective or influential online-originating “fake news” actually is.

Only a small minority of American adults used social media as their main source of information during the 2016 election, and most Americans — particularly older ones, the group more likely to have voted for Trump — continue to rely predominantly on television to be informed, where they’re likely to be influenced by a much more ancient and entirely homegrown brand of disinformation. In fact, a recent study appears to confirm what one would expect: that fake news constituted a small fraction of most voters’ overall media diets, and those who consumed it were already partisans for one of the two candidates.

For the past two years, Democrats and liberals in the US and other Western countries have hyperbolized the threat of “fake news” as a way of covering their ears and avoiding facing up to the dismal nature of the 2016 Democratic campaign, but also to the profound national decay that facilitated the rise of a figure like Donald Trump. Unfortunately, this hyperbolizing has had the unintended, if predictable, effect of giving illiberal leaders around the world a ready-made bogeyman to justify expanding their powers of censorship in alarming ways. The fake-news cure is quickly shaping up to be far more harmful to democracy than the affliction.