Here are some takeaways from the news about “fake news”: false stories propelled Donald Trump’s presidential victory, undermined the peace deal in Colombia, and contribute to ethnic violence in Myanmar. Facebook is to blame, with Twitter and Google distant abettors.
Whatever you think of these conventional conclusions, fake news is causing us to close this twisted and ugly year with an appropriate mixture of outrage, buck-passing, and lack of context and foresight.
Fake news is a problem. Propaganda and lies often drive coverage and misinform the public. They often aim to incite hatred, racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny. Birtherism, climate change denial, and obnoxious stories about Hillary Clinton’s health cynically manipulated public opinion. It would be surprising if Trump and Steve Bannon, his strategic hater-in-chief, do not deploy these tools over the next four years.
Let’s call it the alt-fact movement. In the hands of this movement, social media may amplify fake news, particularly in a relativist world in which reason, science, professional reporting and expertise are denigrated as elitist.
Unfortunately, the solutions are not so easy.
To begin with, many have castigated Facebook for its failure to ‘weed out’ fabricated stories. It’s possible and even desirable that the company and others find ways to tamp down the way in which fake stories travel. I am especially concerned about reports, which I haven’t independently verified, that the company is tinkering with censorship software to improve the possibility of its access to China. No social media company should collaborate on censorship.
But can Facebook and other social media, as The New York Times suggested, “train the software to spot bogus stories and outwit the people producing this garbage”?
Count me as a doubter. Who will decide what is bogus and garbage? Who decides what is true and what is propaganda? Do we want a company with the profit-motive of expanding users to make those kinds of decisions? Will they set up administrative tribunals for those who challenge take-downs of content?
And even if we are comfortable handing over that kind of censorship – for that’s what it is – to a private company, how will this magic algorithm tell the difference between the awful garbage of Breitbart and the hilarious garbage of The Onion? Who creates the software that distinguishes purposeful lies from public interest satire?
Consider also how news is shared. It is not always links to stories that are shared but posts created by individuals and shared by friends. What standards apply to distinguish the fake news story designed to look real from the demonstrably false story propagated by individual users?
Most of what your obnoxious uncle says may be false. Should Facebook censor his posts? Downgrade them? Create a new emoji so you can police his nonsense?
These are real problems that get elided in the hysteria over fake news. But there is another problem that progressives especially should consider, particularly in the face of a president-elect deeply hostile to the accountability function of the media.
What if, instead of asking social media sites to restrict fake news, the government were to propose taking on that role? You say, that’ll never happen. But you didn’t believe Donald Trump would be president, either.
Governments seeking to restrict expression and criticism typically adopt laws to criminalize the “spreading of false news.” Consider Alhagie Abdoulie Ceesay, who escaped from a prison “hospital” after being detained and later convicted in The Gambia on charges of “publishing false news with intent to alarm and fear the public.”* Or the Al Jazeera journalists held for over a year in Egypt on charges of broadcasting false news. Or the free speech activist detained in Bahrain on grounds of “inciting hatred against the regime” and spreading false news.
I could go on. Iran, China, Vietnam and a lengthy list of other countries harshly punish propaganda against the state. Russia and Kyrgizstan, among others, criminalize ‘gay propaganda.’
They do not target racists and hate-mongers, typically. Rather, they target activists and reporters who are often sharing information online.
Such rules, if adopted in the United States, would clearly run afoul of the First Amendment, just as they violate the fundamental right to freedom of expression found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But even their mere consideration could be used to intimidate and harass.
We should all fear a world in which facts and truths are relative, in which those acting in bad faith manipulate the news for cynical, hateful or corrupt motives. But censorship will not be the answer.
Unfortunately, the answers are not obvious. Among other things, media literacy should be taught in our schools. Governments, individual donors and philanthropic foundations should support independent media and public broadcasting. They should fund expansion of critical media into markets that lack it. They should train reporters to cover stories far from the centers of power. Reporters should cover fake news stories themselves and address them carefully and without condescending to those who may believe them.
For many of us, the next four years look bleak, especially concerning the protection of fundamental freedoms. Easy fixes will look attractive. But they will have a cost.
* Updated to clarify that Mr. Ceesay escaped from a prison hospital and is no longer detained in The Gambia.