Fake or fabricated news are potentially harmful to our liberal democracies. Commonly, they serve monetary purposes, but are also used to manipulate public opinion. Their recent success is only possible because the unfiltered flow of information has increased manifold in the digital age.
The scary part about fake news: it runs contrary to the fundamental premise on which liberal democracy rests: that voters are able to make informed choices between contending candidates.
First of all: let’s not exaggerate the real impact of fabricated news on individual political decision-making. For it remains unclear. Research suggests that it might be a much less determining factor than widely assumed. Allcott and Grentzkow (2017) conclude that “social media was an important but not dominant source of news in the run-up to the election, with [a mere] 14 percent of Americans calling social media their ‘most important’ source of election news” (p. 1). It’s important but not (yet) decisive.
This assessment (which can change over time) should affect our choice of democratic countermeasures.
If we wish to continue living in free societies, we better find a balanced way to address this digital phenomenon, withstanding the temptation to impose laws that entail outright censorship.
The lawmakers’ burden
Yet lawmakers are quick to call for new rules to limit the spreading of fake news. Parts of the German government are looking into “regulatory measures” against the “mean-spirited use of the internet”; fact checking by public or semi-public institutions should be involved somehow, officials say. But no one has come up with a concrete plan yet.
Worrisome is the apparent lack of (scientific) expertise in public administrations concerning fabricated news. Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, constantly mixes up fake news with hate speech with social bots etc.
Although well-intended, state-run fact checking, or outsourcing it to private or semi-private media outlets, opens Pandora’s box of censorship measures that can easily be hijacked in the future (rest in mind that the European far-right is still on the rise and Trump is openly discrediting media companies such as CNN and The New York Times).
So what can be done? Invest in quality journalism and increase media literacy. And make use of penal law.
Independent media outlets downsized their editorial staff throughout the last decade, meaning that “active misinformation” is more and more unchallenged. Trained journalists and editors are the bedrock of a free press, which, in turn, holds political power in check. It’s the journalists’ task to expose fake news stories through quality journalistic research. This demanding job is carried out by independent journalists, research networks and initiatives like Schmalbart. What is required is financial funding by users, civil society and the state.
At the same time, increasing media literacy is paramount. Media literacy must respond to new challenges of the digital age. It is mainly young people who combine the use of old and new media in genuine convergence. Educational systems ought to respond to the need for learning new skills and competencies in the access, use, evaluation, analysis and creation of information, messages and media.
Penal law might work
If fake news stories take a swing at individuals or entire groups, civil defamation lawsuits can be effective.
In Germany, sedition, officially “incitement to hatred“, is a serious offence (in the US and the UK this provision doesn’t exist). There are high hurdles in place to convict someone of sedition in Germany, and rightly so. If correctly applied, such legal provisions can make a difference. Maybe the internet age should see the offence of “criminal libel” reinstated.
Free speech is at stake.