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Using ‘Fake News’

A news stand outfitted with “Fake News” headlines for a stunt pulled off by the Columbia Journalism Review in the Manhattan borough of New York, N.Y., October 30, 2018. (Carlo Allegri/REUTERS)

“Fake news” is (so to speak) real, and it is a menace exploited by Russia and others that will only become more dangerous. But, regrettably and unsurprisingly, authoritarian rulers and, almost more insidiously, their gentler imitators (Angela Merkel, most notoriously, with her social-media law) are using the campaign against fake news as an excuse to clamp down on speech that they find . . . inconvenient.

Not to be left behind, the EU is planning its own efforts in this area, and judging by this report from the UK’s Channel 4, there are legitimate grounds for thinking that Brussels’s planned war against fake news might be about rather more than combating Russian disinformation:

In September, journalists from across Europe gathered in Brussels to discuss fact-checking. Many EU officials used the opportunity to give their own views on fake news. Some of them clearly believed that the battle against misinformation was actually a battle against Eurosceptics. They saw their mission in this fight as defending the EU and its institutions.

Ramón Luis Valcárcel Siso, the European Parliament’s vice president, laid this out in stark terms, admitting the campaign against fake news should aim to stop certain politicians from winning seats in the EU’s next election. Speaking to journalists he said: “Your efforts are indispensable so that anti-democrats don’t win at the ballot boxes.”

He added: “Whether we are politicians, journalists, whether we’re fact checkers, or whether we work in an administration – we have a shared goal, which is to ensure the best expression of European democracy.”

Re-read that last sentence and it becomes easier to understand why the EU is best understood as a fundamentally post-democratic institution. And, for that matter, why, writing in 1946, Orwell was so right about so much political speech:

The concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.

Channel 4:

[Mr Valcárcel Siso]…admitted that he “might be accused of trying to carry out some kind of institutional propaganda on behalf of the European Union”. But he claimed that, faced with “division sowed by populists and nationalists, through a discourse of hatred, lies and half-truths and proven falsehoods,” the EU has “the legitimate right to defend the unity of European citizens”.

“Division” bad. “Unity” good. Democracy, well . . .

Channel 4:

Mr Valcárcel Siso was clear that the fight against fake news was not just about protecting democracy – it was about protecting the institutions of the EU as well. And he did not seem to see a distinction between these two things.

“We are not trying to impose any political ideology through these institutions,” he said. “What we are trying to do is safeguard a system which serves the interests of 500 million citizens.”

….The vice president was not the only speaker to make these suggestions. For instance, EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel talked about “deliberate disinformation” which “saps citizens’ confidence and trust in our institutions”.

The EU’s strategy against fake news is set out more formally in a number of reports, reinforcing the sentiments made at the fact-checking conference. Their fears are not just that disinformation damages democracy and political discourse. They also warn about it eroding “trust in institutions”….

[One report] says the European strategy is necessary “in order to ensure effective and coordinated action and to protect the EU, its citizens, its policies and its Institutions”.

Perhaps it’s not surprising or wrong that the EU wants to defend itself. But it does suggest that its war against fake news may not be impartial. Indeed, it seems explicitly designed to protect the EU and its institutions, and stop Eurosceptic politicians making progress in elections…

These are not just words. The EU also wants action.

For instance, it says member states should intervene to change the way news is ranked on websites and social media platforms, to “dilute the visibility of disinformation by improving the findability of trustworthy content”.

It also wants to “ensure that online services include, by design, safeguards against disinformation”. And the EU says member states should “invest in technological means to prioritize relevant, authentic, and authoritative information where appropriate in search, feeds, or other automatically ranked distribution channels”.

And who is to define “trustworthy”, “relevant”, and “authoritative”?

I think we know.

To quote a wise man, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

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