12 February 2019

A fake news quango would threaten free expression and democracy


Dame Frances Cairncross’ government review of the media industry is calling for a “news quality obligation” on online platforms overseen by a powerful new regulator.

The likes of Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Apple would be obliged to “to improve how their users understand the origin of an article of news and the trustworthiness of its source, thereby helping readers identify what ‘good’ or ‘quality’ news looks like”. Platforms would be required to report to the regulator, who would help define the as-yet-unknown objectives and report to Parliament on what people are sharing and reading.

Mercifully, the Cairncross review states that making publishers liable for the content posted by users “goes too far”. It also says that it would be “difficult” to require the upscaling of high quality news and downscaling of disinformation, “given how hard it is to define high-quality news, and the extent to which the content that users see is a reflection of the choices they make themselves.”

But this entire project is creeping authoritarianism and should be immediately and entirely rejected by any government that purports to be on the side of free speech and liberty. Once a regulator is created, the inevitable tendency will be for it to demand more powers. The review itself states that if the obligation does not work the Government should “impose stricter provisions”.

Worryingly, the Government is already inclined in this direction. Its summary of the reports’ key findings goes further than the report itself. Their press comments today explicitly state that “platforms must identify and quickly remove the deliberate spread of misinformation on their services.”

This assumes that the lines between “truth” and “fake news” are clear and precise – not blurry, and political. Everyone has biases, so would these regulators. Public bodies get captured. The type of person working in a state media “fake news” quango would most likely be a highly educated, liberally disposed, London resident. They would, even if they had the best of intentions, see the world through this lens, and that would inevitable effect their judgement.

For some, the mere idea that Brexit could bring benefits is “fake news” and should be restricted. For others, the idea that leaving the European Union has serious risks is, similarly, misinformation. It is not the place of government to decide and try to enforce what is and is not true. Furthermore, what we think is true in one generation may prove to be an absolute falsehood in the next, and vice versa. The only way to determine truth, or at least strive towards it, is through the battle of ideas. Truth does not preexist the process of debate, it emerges over time.

The efforts to censor online content are driven by a culture of condescending snobbishness. There is now widespread belief that less educated individuals were duped by “fake news” into supporting the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit; that the public is simply too stupid to hear opposing views and reach their own conclusions, and instead must be told what to think by people of superior intellect.

The very people who used to claim the mantle of egalitarianism now think they know best.

Polling suggests that much of the threat of fake news is overstated. The University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018 found that only a minority use social media for news and very few consider social media news trustworthy. Just 27 per cent of Brits use Facebook for news, 14 per cent use Twitter and 8 per cent use YouTube. Just 12 per cent trust the news that they receive from social media, indicating a healthy scepticism among the public. Even online, the most popular source of news is the BBC (43 per cent). Very few visit alternative news sites, such as Breitbart (2 per cent) or The Canary (2 per cent).

Nevertheless, increasing government pressure is having a chilling effect on free speech. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Patreon, and other platforms are introducing more aggressive moderation policies, and deleting posts and accounts.

While these companies, which are private organisations, have an absolute right to decide what content should appear on their platform, it is concerning that regulatory interventions are closing the new public sphere to certain ideas — most often based on assertions of “hate speech”.

The increasing regulation of online platforms, which seeks to make them liable for users’ posts, also has a serious detrimental impact on the internet.

All the benefits we receive from social media — the ability to freely communicate, access information, and build communities across the globe — are dependent on platform liability exemptions. The cost of pre-moderating every post and legal liability costs from what users post would make platforms such as Facebook and Twitter completely unviable. Furthermore, growing regulations are hurting competition by creating barriers to entry, discouraging investment in alternative platforms, and consequently solidify the place of the tech giants.

Cairncross also calls for an “Institute for Public Service News” to fund news that is “deemed most worthy of support”. It is not hard to imagine who would receive funding: news sources who reinforce the views of the new cultural elite, or, perhaps following the victory of a Corbyn Government, the likes of far-left activist news site, The Canary.

Alternatively, these subsidies could just end up lining the pockets of commercial media interests. In any case, the government should not be funding news sources that are not able to attract readers and be commercially viable in their own right.

If the government values the media and freedom of expression, then the best response to the Caincross review would be to ignore it entirely.

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Matthew Lesh is the head of research at the Adam Smith Institute. In a forthcoming report, 'Safeguarding Progress: Why we shouldn’t regulate the internet', the ASI will discuss how growing regulation is undermining the very fabric of the internet, free speech and entrepreneurship.