The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Idea of ‘Fake News’ and Its Abuses

Over on the Home Page, David Harsanyi looks at the way that the campaign against ‘fake news’ could be twisted into a threat to free speech, even in the land of the First Amendment:

It’s difficult, it seems, for some people to embrace neutral principles nowadays. But if you genuinely believe that President Donald Trump’s distasteful tweets are attacks on the foundations of free expression, how could you not be alarmed by a pair of powerful elected officials demanding that social-media companies hand over information about their users? What would they say if the president had sent a letter to Google insisting that it give the executive branch an “in-depth forensic examination” of his political opponent’s searches?


In the course of his article, Harsanyi reminds us that in countries with a less robust attachment to free speech than the US, governments have been busy at work institutionalizing their response to ‘fake news:’

In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May is launching a “rapid response unit” run by the state to “battle the proliferation of ‘fake news’ online.” The “national security communications unit” will be tasked with combating misinformation — as if it had either the power or ability to do so. In France, President Emmanuel Macron is working on a plan to combat “fake news,” which includes the power to institute an emergency block on websites during elections. What could possibly go wrong?

May’s squalid authoritarian tendencies are no secret and as for Macron, I posted a bit on his efforts last week and indeed those, which have proceeded far, far further, of Angela Merkel, that supposed defender of the liberal order.

Writing in Quilette, Jacob Mchangama notes:

Germany is no safe haven for free speech. Merkel’s government has adopted a draconian and arbitrary law against “illegal content” on social media which has seen both political speech and satire removed by Twitter. So illiberal is the law that members of Putin’s United Russia party essentially copy and pasted it and proposed their own version last summer.

This is not to say that Russian fake news cannot, under very specific circumstances, be a real concern in the democratic world, most notably, perhaps, in Latvia and Estonia, where large ethnic Russian minorities live in what is effectively a ‘Russian information space’, leaving them susceptible to propaganda with, potentially, dangerous consequences, but the UK, Germany, France, and, indeed, the US, are, bots or no bots, very far from that space.

It’s not too much of a stretch to suspect that the war against fake news is spreading into an assault (as has already been the case in Germany) on the ‘wrong’ type of speech.

Of all people, the Pope, somewhat ironically, under the circumstances (he’s not averse either to demagoguery or a spot of conspiracism himself) has recently renewed his own attack on fake news, but contained within his speech was a remark that Merkel would applaud:

An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful.

A fact is only true if it generates the right results.

Somewhere Orwell smiles


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