Following the US presidential election (and the revelation about the infamous moneymaking scheme by teenagers in Macedonia), the disruptive impact of “fake news” has caught a lot of attention. The rise of fake news, especially across Facebook, is said to have become a global problem, with tech companies attempting to thwart the trend as they face pressure from national lawmakers.
We are told horror stories about Russia enthroning Trump and fake news helping Le Pen to become French president next year.
Without doubt, fake news are potentially harmful to our democratic societies. But even well-orchestrated fake news attacks are only able to destabilise what has already come under pressure from growing social inequalities.
Facebook recently announced that it will start flag news stories that appear to be manipulated with the help of users and outside fact checkers. A policy to be tested only in the US. It’s worth a shot.
The German coalition government wants even stricter rules: It will pass a law that forces “market-dominating platforms such as Facebook” to erase flagged fake news stories within 24 hours or face a fine of up to 500.000 Euros. Complaints will have to be processed by the companies’ legal protection division open to any user.
These political demands, as understandable as they are, represent more than imperfect options – and are a distraction from the real issue at hand: digital education. If a sobering 80 percent of US pupils (numbers won’t be much higher in Germany and elsewhere) aren’t able to distinguish between ads and news stories, the real problem surely lies somewhere else.
The road to censorship?
It’s a thin line between regulating fake news and internet censorship. What should not happen is trying to designate anything outside the “mainstream bubble” as suspect on its face. Unfortunately, most of the policy options tabled bear the potential to be misused as censorship tools, undermining freedom of speech.
Politically bound third-party fact checkers should be entitled to tell us what are confirmed news bits and what are harmful fake news by independent bloggers? And what if a future right-wing government decides to expand the implemented “fake news law” to other less insulting buzzwords? What about opinion pieces like this one?This can easily get out of hand.
Immunise against fake news
Technical barriers to keep (fake) news from spreading are always second best to educational and economic measures. For example, financial incentives to create fake news websites could be reduced by making it more difficult to spoof existing legitimate domains. And:
If you want to eliminate fake news, find business models that don’t rely on whoring users’ attention out to advertisers. (13/14)
— Meredith L Patterson (@maradydd) December 15, 2016
What else can be done? As an open society we should focus on redirecting our educational system to the demands of the digital age. Well-informed people are the best social insulation against the seduction of fake news. Also, we need more independent quality media outlets, reflecting our pluralistic societies.
After all, freedom of speech and the press are the greater good.