The Dangers & Difficulties of Censoring "Fake News"

 

Photo: pixel2013/Pixabay

 

We've been hearing a lot in the media and in mainstream political discourse lately about "fake news." Before we can have any kind of a sensible discussion about this topic, we need to begin by making clear what it is, exactly, that we mean by "fake news." As Tim Dickinson noted in a recent Tweet, this is a very vague term that doesn't appear to have a precise definition. As he wrote, 

 

"'Fake news' is lazy language. 
Be specific. Do you mean:
A) Propaganda
B) Disinformation
C) Conspiracy theory
D) Clickbait"

 

For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I'll proceed in this post by defining "fake news" as "false or extremely misleading information." 

Despite the fact that the presentation of false or misleading information has been a problem as long as humans have been communicating news to one another, this topic has been receiving a massive amount of attention recently. I would argue that this is due in large part to the results of the presidential election, with "fake news" being one of many scapegoats used by the Democratic Party to explain away Hillary Clinton's loss—but that's a question for another day. The question that primarily concerns me in this post is: What should we do about "fake news"? What should our response be, as individuals, and as a nation?

We could answer this question in a number of different ways.

 

1) We, as consumers of media, could take it upon ourselves to maintain a healthy skepticism and fact-check consequential or dubious stories. Furthermore, we should make intelligent choices about where we obtain our news from, not taking at face value news from websites that we are unfamiliar with or that have a reputation for publishing false or misleading information.

This is largely the answer that I support, but other options exist.

2) We could request that websites like Google, Facebook, and Twitter take action in some way. 

3) We could request that our government takes action in some way.

 

Answers two and three strike me as problematic, for a number of different reasons. Let's break these answers down by being more precise and asking, what kind of actions could governments or popular websites take to confront "fake news"? 

For starters, either as a result of company policy or governmental decree, websites like Google, Facebook and Twitter could implement blanket bans, either of links to certain websites, or of links to articles about certain topics, regardless of their source. This is a response that I wholeheartedly oppose, because it opens the door to the potential censorship of legitimate viewpoints. 

What if those who were determining which news is "fake" or not decided to censor opinions that they simply disagreed with? What if conservative censors blocked access to news articles that pushed liberal viewpoints, or vice versa? They wouldn't even need to have some sort of a nefarious agenda; indeed, even the most brutal tyrants throughout history have generally thought of themselves as acting in an ethically sound and justifiable manner. So we could very easily imagine censors who are biased in one way or another allowing those biases to influence their censorship.

Would progressive-leaning censors not be tempted to block access to articles that disagree with gay marriage, for example, or that attempt to refute the claim that the actions of our species contribute to climate change? Would conservative-leaning censors not be tempted to block access to articles that call for higher taxes on the wealthy or that argue in favor of repealing the 2nd Amendment? It seems inevitable that people's political and philosophical biases would poison any effort at objectively censoring the news—even assuming that they had nothing but good intentions.

Who would we entrust to determine which information is false or misleading? How would we assess whether a person is fit to censor the news? Would we democratically elect our censors? If we went this route, would this simply not lead to a tyranny of the majority, where the majority view would be proclaimed the truth, with minority viewpoints subsequently being eliminated from the public sphere? Would the president appoint a panel of censors? This is just as troubling, if not moreso, because it's easy to imagine a president appointing censors that are simply yesmen who agree with his views. 

Regardless of how the censors were chosen, could you ever trust some government panel or some group of Facebook employees to decide, for you, what news information is truthful or not? Because I certainly wouldn't. When other people begin controlling what information you have access to, they ultimately have the capacity to control your thoughts and beliefs. An essential part of intellectual freedom dies the moment we hand this power over to some authoritative body. Granting such powers to our government has the potential to send us down a very Orwellian path. Just imagine living in a world where "truth" in media is defined as "that which is in agreement with what the government says is true," a world where anything that conflicts with the government's official viewpoint is labeled as "false" by decree and is subsequently whisked out of the public spotlight. This would be a nightmare. 

We're all quite familiar with the fact that our government isn't completely honest 100% of the time, so it's quite conceivable that false information could be presented to us as truthful by such a panel of censors. Furthermore, we could also imagine this Ministry of Truth getting corrupted by wealthy individuals or corporations, consequently leading to information that's conducive to wealthy interests being disseminated as Truth, with information unfavorable to those interests being deemed False and subsequently removed from the public eye.

And even if it was just individual internet companies making these decisions, we could still imagine these powers being abused, either by the company censors filtering information in such a way that aligns with their political views, or by censoring information that makes the company look bad or that would hurt their financial interests in some way. And even if we lived in a perfect world where these powers would never be abused, I would still be opposed to granting some authorative body these censorship powers on principle alone. Ultimately, I completely reject the idea of somebody else deciding what I should or should not be allowed to read. This is my decision to make—not somebody else's. 

To help give us a clear picture of what a world of external censorship would look like—as if our imagination isn't enough—let's take a look at an example from Israel, recounted in the book Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, written by Noam Chomsky: 

 

"When the dovish Progressive List [for Peace] . . . sought to broadcast a campaign advertisement showing an interview with Arafat announcing that he accepts U.N. resolutions 242 and 338, High Court Justice Goldberg ruled it illegal, stating: 'From the time when the government declared that the PLO is a terrorist organization, television is permitted to produce only broadcasts that conform to this declaration and present the PLO in a negative manner as a terrorist organization. It is forbidden to broadcast anything that contradicts the declaration and presents the PLO as a political organization.' Commenting, attorney Avignor Feldman writes: 'The logic is iron-clad. State television . . . is not permitted to broadcast a reality inconsistent with government decision, and if the facts are not consistent with the government stand, then not in our school, please.'"

 

Ask yourself: Is this the kind of world you want to live in? Do you want to live in a nation with a state-controlled media, in which people are "not permitted to broadcast a reality inconsistent with government decision"? Anybody who genuinely cares about freedom of expression and freedom of the press would answer this question with a resounding "no!"

What about making the publication of "fake news" a criminal offense? 

This, I think, is an extremely dangerous approach that should be staunchly opposed. Such legislation could become a tool used by the powerful to criminalize dissent. People who publicly question the authority of those in power, or question their policies, could simply be branded purveyors of "fake news" and thrown into a prison cell to rot away. 

Plus, what kind of a sinister approach is this to confronting inaccuracy in media? It's one thing to knowingly publish falsehoods, but what about people who make an honest mistake in a piece of reporting? Would they also face the wrath of such legislation? When it comes to simply reporting on current events and providing one's interpretation, the idea of criminalizing incorrect thoughts or information is totalitarian insanity.

Another less-extreme solution that Facebook and Google have recently announced they'll be implementing is the termination of ad revenue on "fake news" websites. As the completely trustworthy New York Times reports (The New York Times, which never misleads its readers or publishes propaganda):

 

"Over the last week, two of the world’s biggest internet companies [Facebook and Google] have faced mounting criticism over how fake news on their sites may have influenced the presidential election’s outcome.

On Monday, those companies responded by making it clear that they would not tolerate such misinformation by taking pointed aim at fake news sites’ revenue sources.

Google kicked off the action on Monday afternoon when the Silicon Valley search giant said it would ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service. Hours later, Facebook, the social network, updated the language in its Facebook Audience Network policy, which already says it will not display ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites."

 

This might seem like a much more benign approach than outright banning these websites from appearing on their platforms, but in a world where the very survival of media institutions depends, in large part, upon advertising revenue, this could arguably be a de facto death blow to any media website that happens to be on the receiving end of it. In their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky discuss some of the key mechanisms that filter the news and that have contributed to media consolidation over the years. One of these is what they describe as "The Advertising License To Do Business":

 

"Before advertising became prominent, the price of a newspaper had to cover the costs of doing business. With the growth of advertising, papers that attracted ads could afford a copy price well below production costs. This put papers lacking in advertising at a serious disadvantage: their prices would tend to be higher, curtailing sales, and they would have less surplus to invest in improving the salability of the paper (features, attractive format, promotion, etc.). For this reason, an advertising-based system will tend to drive out of existence or into marginality the media companies and types that depend on revenue from sales alone. With advertising, the free market does not yield a neutral system in which final buyer choice decides. The advertisers' choices influence media prosperity and survival."

 

Now of course, printed newspapers are different than online websites, but I think the same general concept would apply, with them needing to rely more on subscription costs or direct, donation support, in the absence of advertising revenue in order to stay operational, and especially to stay competitive with other media websites. So by analogy, cutting off a news website's ad revenue is like allowing a person to starve to death rather than quickly shooting them in the head. Perhaps this is a bit dramatic, and one could argue that these news websites could seek out alternative advertisers, or that they could survive thanks to the support of their audience. But there's no question that eliminating their Google or Facebook ad revenue puts them at a severe disadvantage. 

Another proposed solution—one that Facebook has actually started implementing already—is allowing users to flag news stories as "fake news." As NBC News reports

 

"After weeks of user outcry over the issue of fake news on the site, Facebook has finally come up with ways to strip its News Feed of the controversial hoax stories that led to accusations that the social giant had swayed voters in the presidential election.

. . . The site rolled out a suite of new tools Thursday that will allow users to flag anything they consider 'disputed.' The feature will be gradually rolled out to more people as Facebook learns more about what works, a company representative said.

Flagged stories will then be reviewed by Facebook researchers and sent on to third-party fact-checking organizations for further verification — or marked as fake."

 

What are my thoughts on this approach? Well, I'm of course hesitant to give so-called "Facebook researchers" too much discretion in this area, for the reasons that I outlined earlier. As far as handing controversial news stories over to fact-checking organizations to get their take, I don't have much of a problem with this. But there is a legitimate concern here that might lie just beyond the horizon: The corruption of fact-checking organizations. If they became influenced by special interests, or if they just naturally became biased over time, their declarations could become untrustworthy. So I suppose the antidote to this is for each and every one of us to remain vigilant, not being afraid to fact-check the fact-checkers or question what they conclude.

The final solution that I've heard proposed to deal with this problem is one that I actually don't have much of a problem with: Allowing individual users to fine-tune their own feed, by, for example, blocking the appearance of links to certain websites that they decide to block. The reason I don't have much of a problem with this is because it's not very different, in principle, from voluntarily deciding which website to visit, or which newspaper to read. Furthermore, computer programs have existed, for quite a while, that allow you to block access to certain websites. I actually have such a program installed on my internet browser that helps me stay productive by preventing me from opening Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or other such distracting websites when I'm trying to work on a piece of writing or read a book. So this approach isn't really anything new.

That said, it is problematic in the sense that the end-result will be to further insulate people within the echochambers that so many inhabit these days, because people would undoubtedly use such a feature to block content from websites that have a political slant that differs from their own, with liberals, for example, blocking links to websites like Fox News or Brietbart. I think it's incredibly valuable to regularly encounter opposing viewpoints, and conversely, intellectually corrosive to wall yourself off from them. So while I wouldn't have a problem with the installation of such an optional feature, I would nonetheless discourage people from using it to shield themselves from alternative ideas.

So what is my solution to the scourge of fake news? I think people should, first and foremost, make wise decisions about where they obtain their news from. If you encounter an article on a website that you've never heard of before, don't mindlessly accept its content as an indisputable dogma. Instead, take an extra minute or two to double- or triple-check the claims on more trustworthy websites that you're familiar with. And when you do encounter a false claim on the internet, simply leave a thoughtful comment explaining how you've determined that it's false. Based upon my experience reading about a million comment sections over the years, if an article or video contains overt falsehood, the truth will generally rise to the top and eventually prevail.

What we should not do in response to fake news is allow fear to overwhelm us and cause us to act irrationally. We've heard a lot of horror stories in the media and from prominent politicians lately about how fake news stories have the potential to overturn elections and inspire violence and perhaps even mass murder. But this, to me, is just part of the endless cycle of the government and media trying to terrify us into voluntarily abolishing our rights and granting them more power over us. The true test of an individual and a society's principles and courage is whether they resist these efforts.

Before I end this post, there's one final point that needs to be made. This post would not be complete without me pointing out the extreme hypocrisy and absurdity of the propaganda-pushing mainstream media lecturing us about the quality of news content. These are the very same media institutions that have a longstanding track record of publishing incredibly misleading or outright inaccurate news stories—not just in isolated cases where one journalist or organization makes a mistake and and quickly retracts it, but also in sustained campaigns that involve almost the entirety of the mainstream media.

So if we were consistent and wanted to block access to media outlets that mislead or propagandize their audiences, the very media outlets who have been calling so loudly for the government or large websites to take action against "fake news" would themselves be victims of the very action that they're calling for. While examples abound of the mainstream media offering incredibly misleading or inaccurate content to their audiences, I'm going to provide just one in this post: Their presentation of Central American elections during the 1980s. (If you'd like further examples, I'd recommend reading the books that I've mentioned already: Necessary Illusions and Manufacturing Consent.) As Herman and Chomsky write in the concluding section of Manufacturing Consent's third chapter:

 

". . . electoral conditions in Nicaragua in 1984 were far more favorable than in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the observer team of LASA [Latin American Studies Association] found the election in Nicaragua to have been 'a model of probity and fairness' by Latin American standards. In El Salvador and Guatemala, none of the five basic preconditions of a free election was met. In both of these countries, state-sponsored terror, including the public exposure of mutilated bodies, had ravaged the civilian population up to the very day of the elections. In both, voting was required by law, and the populace was obliged to have ID cards signed, testifying that they had voted. In both, the main rebel opposition was off the ballot by law, by credible threat of violence, and by plan.

Nevertheless, in exact accord with the propaganda line of the state, the U.S. mass media found the large turnouts in these countries to be triumphs of democratic choice, the elections legitimizing, and 'fledgling democracies' thus created. This was accomplished in large part by the media's simply refusing to examine the basic conditions of a genuinely free election and their application to these client-state elections. Only for the Nicaraguan election did the media look at matters such as freedom of the press, and they did this with conspicuous dishonesty. Despite its superiority on every substantive count, the Nicaraguan election was found by the media to have been a sham and to have failed to legitimize."

 

The point is clear: If these mainstream media outlets truly wanted to rid the world of dishonest or misleading news content, they should start by packing up their things and announcing tomorrow that they will no longer be providing news to the world. I won't hold my breath on this.