5 December 2018

The perils of banning fake news

By Filip Steffensen

There is no reason to believe that protecting democracy against fake news wouldn’t be utilised as a pretext to enforce strict censorship and silence critics.

When the printing press was invented in the mid-1400s, Europe faced radical and unprecedented changes. Ultimately revolutionising the circulation of information, the printing press dislodged the monopoly of information and ideas. As Gutenberg reformed the printing system around 1440, the technology quickly expanded. According to some accounts, there were approximately 110 printers in Europe around 1480. As technology diffused throughout Europe, more than 270 cities had active printers by the end of the 15th century.

By reducing the cost of production, revolutionary ideas were easily distributed across Europe. For dissidents and scholars all over Europe, the printing press was an instrument to disseminate progressive ideas, criticising authority and advocating freedom of expression.

Encountered with challenging and subversive ideas, governments and religious authorities began to enforce strict censorship. In order to silence criticism, political and religious dissidents were brutally prosecuted in summary procedures all across Europe. Brutal methods were employed, and numerous people accused of heresy were burned ruthlessly at the stake.

While most people consider this period a dark age of Europe, only a few realise that parallels can be drawn to the present development in information technology. With the exception of the methods employed, the digital revolution bears a strong resemblance to the age of censorship.

As with the printing press, computers and smartphones have enabled people to disperse ideas all over the world. Social media and new platforms of public deliberation have rendered traditional gatekeepers like news editors redundant. In addition, the digital age has fostered the so-called “bots”—automated accounts that allow people to spread fake news.

Fake news and the printing press

During the 2016 US presidential election, the role of fake news attracted spectacular attention. The predicament of fake news was fiercely discussed, and afterwards, analyses have shown 50,000 Russia-linked bots tweeted about the election. Moreover, evidence has revealed that more than 100,000 dollars were spent on Facebook ads by a company with ties to the Kremlin, thus adding further potency to the allegations of Russian interference.

Subsequently, politicians and elites around the world have debated how to combat fake news: what instruments can we apply, and which remedies should politicians have in order to tackle the threat? Various instruments have been proposed, and several governments have already adopted them. Hence, diverse countries like Germany, the UK, Kenya, and France have already implemented legislation.

Just like the invention of the printing press, the digital age has changed the distribution of news. Traditional gatekeepers have been dismissed, and the monopoly on news distribution is eroding. Contemplating possible solutions, contemporary politicians are now facing a situation similar to the one the Church experienced in the early 15th century. The response from the Church obviously proved disastrous, so present-day lawmakers have to act cautiously. But how?

Regulation and criminalisation intuitively seem like a legitimate response. Deliberately contorting public sentiment by spreading deceptive articles erodes the very foundation of public deliberations: a common reference point. For if we cannot agree about basic facts, how can we enquire and debate rationally? Despite compelling arguments for inhibiting freedom of speech in order to suppress the emergence of fake news, I will now try to elucidate the peril of enacting laws against fake news.

A Millian conception of free speech

It might be useful to return to one of the champions of free speech: John Stuart Mill. Mill introduced the so-called “harm principle” and argued convincingly for an extensive legal protection of free speech.

Mill argued that freedom of speech was essential to progress. For him, strict censorship of ideas assumed to be wrong is “robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.” Thus, Mill proceeded to argue that even obscure viewpoints and ideas may contain a small fraction of truth. If, on the contrary, they do not contain the smallest fraction of truth, they should still be allowed because they contribute to a “clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Following the Millian chain of reasoning, fake news should be rebutted and exposed rather than silenced. Embarking on the path of censorship will have fatal consequences and vest governments around the world with immense powers of censorship.

Some well-intended politicians may indeed have legitimate concerns about fake news. However, safeguarding democracy against fake news may also serve as a pretence for totalitarian leaders to silence “heretics” as it was during the age of censorship. Totalitarian leaders have formerly disguised their totalitarian tendencies in elegant rhetoric.

It has been described in detail how totalitarian countries drove the process of incorporating a broad definition of “hate speech” in the UN. Disguised as promotion of tolerance, the very advocates of the proposal now had a pretence to silence critics. Scholars have noted that similar methods are applied in countries with draconian blasphemy laws.

There is no reason to believe that protecting democracy against fake news wouldn’t be utilised as a pretext to enforce strict censorship and silence critics. Kenya—a country with a bad reputation of protecting civil liberties—has already adopted laws purported to shield against fake news. Even in some European democracies, parliaments have enacted legislation obligating social media companies to remove “fake news” within a short time. This is a very dangerous game because adopting fake news legislation not only curtails speech—it may also provide aspiring dictators around the world with legitimacy to further strengthen their grip.

Social media is an empire of censorship

Even more disturbing is the fact that forcing social media platforms to systematically censor “hateful speech” and “fake news” has created an empire of censorship the Church would have admired back in the 15th century.

When the printing press was invented, the Church responded by creating an unparalleled censorship apparatus. Thousands of critics were silenced until the official index of forbidden literature was finally abolished in 1966. Nonetheless, the Church still had difficulties in identifying some critics because they would publish their writings anonymously, and they would then be distributed as underground literature (similarly, dissidents would publish “samizdat” books in communist regimes during the Cold War).

Today, however, publishing on social media does not facilitate this possibility. Instead, computer technology makes it easy for social media editors to detect and remove comments irreconcilable with guidelines. In particular, this means that a company like Facebook removes more than 280,000 posts a month.

In other words, technology has made it easy to identify undesired comments, and I’m convinced that the Catholic Church would admire a similar censorship apparatus. After all, the much-criticised index only contained about 6,000 titles in 1966. The Church would probably have been even more successful suppressing freedom of speech, science, and human advancement if the same technologies had been available at that time.

Free speech must not be sacrificed

Fake news is indisputably a major problem for today’s democracies. The dissemination of misleading and deceptive articles distorts the premises of public reasoning.

Nevertheless, free speech should not be sacrificed to combat fake news. Adopting legislation to shield against fake news has major implications and is highly perilous. When the printing press was invented, it brought along a radical shift in information technology. The same has happened in the digital age. It is thus our task to prevent Western democracies from committing the very same mistakes the Church did.

This post was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

Filip Steffensen is a Danish free-marketeer working in the real estate sector.