The Corner

Politics & Policy

Fake News, Censorship, and Slush Funds

Britain’s former Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs William Hague makes a speech supporting remaining in the EU, at Chatham House in London, Britain, June 8, 2016. (Dan Kitwood/Pool/Reuters)

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, former British Conservative leader William Hague becomes yet another politician trying to use fake news as an excuse to extend the reach of the state into areas where it should not go. Inspired by the recent report of a parliamentary committee (which I discussed here), which was in turn itself partly inspired by Angela Merkel’s strikingly illiberal social-media law, Hague wants to take things even further:

I would encourage this committee and ministers to think even more radically in some respects. For instance, they recommend that the algorithms used to determine what news to show to each user should be audited by a regulator.

And who audits the regulator?

Hague argues that such algorithms should be published (not a bad idea), but also appears to believe that they should be programmed to furnish feeds “with news and comment from some alternative way of thinking so that people are not forever living on a diet of views and advertisements that confirm everything they already think.”

Hague is right to think that it’s not healthy to rely solely on information that is ideologically slanted one way (FWIW I try to make sure that I don’t), but it’s a big leap to go from that reasonable observation to insist that people must be served up with alternative views. And who decides what is or is not a sufficiently “alternative” way of thinking, and, for that matter, which of those alternatives to publicize?

The opportunity for manipulation of the audience, but this time with the force of law behind it is obvious. That this is being proposed by a former Tory leader is yet another reminder of just how far the Conservative party has been transformed from a party that paid at least some respect to the individual to being a party of the state.

Then Hague moves on to censorship:

In Britain we have always banned paid political advertising on television, even when TV viewing was by far the main medium for news and discussion. It has helped save British politics from being as expensive, simplistic and divisive as it can be elsewhere.

The last sentence manages to be parochial, smug, condescending, and not a little authoritarian.

Hague:

In a recent book, the Labour activist Tom Baldwin has made the case for extending that ban to social media, arguing that anything short of that will inevitably be open to manipulation, abuse and being quickly out of date. Such a ban would not stop parties and candidates producing videos and messages that were shared widely if they were powerful or interesting, but it would stop the quiet breaking of spending limits or exploitation of data about individuals.

To agree with Tom Baldwin, who has campaigned for almost everything I disagree with, I have to overcome my own predisposition to be opposed to whatever he supports. Yet in the interests of not having a closed and polarised mind myself, I think I can manage it. And it might just be in the interests of our wider democracy to adopt such a British solution to a threat undermining our long-held attachment to open and fair debate.

“Shut up,” Hague explained.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s opposition Fianna Fáil appears to be following up on an idea recently floated by the EU Commission as it considered how best to combat fake news, an idea I recently discussed in an NRODT piece (my emphasis added):

Brussels is on the case — of course it is — urging social-media companies to sign up for a voluntary code of conduct to combat what the European Commission refers to as “verifiably false or misleading information . . . [that is] created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and [that] may cause public harm.” That word “verifiably” has to do a great deal of heavy lifting, and, as for “misleading,” well . . .

Some of Brussels’s proposals, such as more transparency about sponsored commentary, are sensible. Others could conceivably reflect an even more cynical view of the European public’s credulousness than that displayed by the Kremlin. It takes only an elementary understanding of how politics works to grasp that the call for EU member-states “to scale up their support of quality journalism” will be used to justify lucrative handouts for journalism that toes the party line.

Enter Fianna Fáil (the Irish Times reports):

A minister for the media, a new €30 million fund for print journalism and a review of defamation laws are among the proposals advanced by Fianna Fáil today in a new policy designed “to sustain high quality journalism in Irish public life.”

The plan was launched this morning by the party’s front bench communications spokesman, Timmy Dooley.

He said the emergence of “fake news” mainly on online platforms was acting as a “destabiliser in western democracies”.

In the proposal, Mr Dooley says the decline in newspaper sales in recent years, allied to migration of advertising online, has meant that “Irish newspaper publishers are no longer able to allocate adequate resources provide high quality journalism.”

…Fianna Fáil says it would appoint a “minister for the media” and would set up a “print journalism unit” in the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (which regulates broadcasting) to promote and fund public interest journalism in newspapers….

Any funding decisions, it says, would be independent of government and the political system.

I wonder . . .

But even if that were to be so, something tells me that when it came to this funding, the selection of the lucky winners would be — how shall I put this — somewhat skewed, and I think we all know in which direction.

Fake news is a threat, but the cure may well be worse than the disease.

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