The soon-to-be-appointed EU expert group on fake news should seriously look into the overlooked danger that entrusting social networks with policing hate speech and fake news (for instance through voluntary codes) might actually give them a disproportionate power to shape public opinion.
For me personally, the most enjoyable moment in that whole “fake news” commotion has been the re-discovery of the concept called truth by the progressives. Finally the pudding of post-modernist relativism was made available for eating. And it did not taste well.
However, fake news and related phenomena, such as echo chambers and social bots, are a matter of concern for the entire political spectrum. Politicians and media feel challenged or even threatened by it. Some are even suggesting that in order to save democracy we need to regulate social media just like the printed press.
The issue boils down to the balance between the right of free speech and the danger of false information. There is a growing tendency to make the danger look bigger and the issue of freedom of speech smaller in order to achieve balance and thereby justify more governmental control of the social media at the expense of freedom of speech.
The advocates of tighter regulation of social media base their argument on a couple of wrong and unproven assumptions.
The first wrong assumption is the gravity of the problem. It is simply not as bad as that “The functioning of democracies is at stake. Fake news is as dangerous as hate speech and other illegal content.”
It is not as dangerous as hate speech and it is not illegal. Functioning of democracy is not at stake if two elections made “wrong” decisions. Good arguments have been given that fake news did not have a serious impact on either the US elections or Brexit. And even if they did. Politics has always played dirty. Information war, lies, deception, false promises are fair game.
The second wrong assumption is that possession of truth is possible. Most of the stories in mainstream media are supposed to be fact-checked and yet this does not prevent bias or falsehoods. What would be fact-check on a story claiming Iraq does not have WMD in 2003? If would be labelled fake news and suppressed.
The belief that “the lack of trusted bearings undermines the very structure of society” shows a deep contempt and distrust in the citizens as if they are unable to form an opinion without an authority. In the past this was the Church, then the state and in the future it will be the “fact-checkers”.
How wrong! Truth is not established by an authority. We are approaching truth in a confrontation of ideas and arguments. This should be preserved without limitations.
The third wrong assumption is that those in position of truth can be impartial. The war of ideas will simply move from debating the ideas on the Web to the meddling with the “fact-checking” authorities. Who nominates them? Politicians? I am sure they would be happy to.
Or will they be “experts”? The “reporting” of hate speech is, as we speak, left to the organized soldiers on the internet and bots. The fight is increasingly not about ideas but about how to get Twitter or Facebook close, silence or demote accounts that spread “wrong” arguments.
The fourth wrong assumption is the attitude towards free speech. Advocates of regulation of social media claim that “freedom of speech is not limitless. It is enjoyed only within some sort of framing, such as ‘enhancing the access to and the diversity and quality of the channels and the content of communication’.” This is wrong. Freedom of speech is limited with other freedoms, not by nice-to-haves diversity and quality!
They say that “it would be rather naïve to guarantee totally unrestricted freedom of speech to those whose long-term aim is to destroy democracy and its freedoms altogether.” Then the whole idea of the freedom of speech is naïve. If it is not hate speech, if it is not a credible call to commit a crime, if it cannot be privately prosecuted as libel, it has to be free.
The real problem
In the effort to exaggerate the problem on one hand, and to water down the issue of free speech on the other we are missing a bigger issue. And that is the danger that the authority to control thought and speech is outsourced to the industry. There is also an emerging danger that the “big-social” (Facebook, Twitter, Google, Snap …) will abuse its power to shape public opinion and to form, in bed with big government, a controlled cyberspace environment.
To make the “big-social” fight the fake news, they would be treated as newspapers. If they are newspapers they can legitimately lean to one or the other political side, as most newspapers do. This would then allow Facebook or Twitter to actively promote certain political parties. If they are forced down that road, image how much worse the echo-chamber problem would get, when the other side organizes their own social network. We will have, for example, the left on Twitter and the right on Gab!
I am convinced that it is important that the big-social offers a neutral and impartial platform for the exchange of ideas. If anything this is something to regulate – in the direction of content neutrality, transparency of algorithms and of decisions whose accounts are to be disabled or punished in some other way for bad behavior. Internet promised to be an open space for the exchange of ideas. Let’s not ruin that! Let the big-social offer communication platforms and let’s not drag them into policing what people think!
All that the legislators should demand are that the platforms are available for free and open exchange of ideas. Not “voluntary code of conduct” and not for big-social to “have their own guidelines to clarify users what constitutes illegal hate speech”.
What is illegal hate speech should be defined by law and enforced by courts. Censorship should not be outsourced to social media companies. If we go down that road we may end up with the alliance of the big-government and big-social to create a controlled and biased cyberspace that would dwarf the worst Orwellian nightmares.
Freedom of fake news
Freedom of speech includes freedom of fake news. Existing laws for hate speech, libel and copyright infringement should be used against the authors not against the big-social. Measures are needed to strengthen individual responsibility and not to ask the big-social to police the internet. Real name policy should be promoted by labelling content that has real name and thus responsible authors. This is also a cure against the future threat of AI and bots interfering in places where humans socialize. Verified accounts are a good step in this direction.
The disease of politics are fake politicians, fake policies, fake statistics, fake promises. Fake news are just a symptom. We should be treating the disease. And the best way to make a distinction between the bad and fake and the good and real is through a clash of ideas. The future of our civilization depends on preserving the internet as an open space for a free exchange of ideas. Any kind of ideas.
Picture Credits: ciocci
The EU does not have the match of national media of its own and has very limited traditional tools of direct interaction with the citizens of the 28 member states. In the age of mass broadcast and print media that was a huge disadvantage. In the age of new media and digital democracy this might turn into an opportunity.
Around the turn of the century when virtually everyone, at least in the developed world, was already “connected” traditional media started rapidly losing clout and income as both readers and advertisers “migrated” online for a faster, interactive and more diverse information environment.
Ever since newspapers have been struggling, with many of them either becoming extinct or turning into newsprint extras to their web-sites.
TV stations have suffered heavily from the free availability of news and entertainment video content online and Radio is more and more confined to the lazier alternative of listening to your own music while driving to work.
With a few years delay, the same decline in status befell upon traditional political parties in Europe – and for the same reasons exactly.
Traditional media were initially unable to react to the interactive requirements of their connected audiences just as much as traditional parties were unable to react to the expectations of citizens. People declined to be treated as voters and taxpayers any longer and wanted to be, well, decision-makers themselves.
The mass invasion of social media, which is yet to celebrate its tenth anniversary, put an end to the traditional European societies, where public opinion was the result of a complicated debate among citizens with different views moderated (many would say manipulated) by the political establishment and the mainstream media.
Social media made that debate impossible as people befriended, “liked” and “followed” only the like-minded and completely ignored everyone else, with painful political ramifications. The traditional political parties of Europe could no longer bet on leadership and consensus-building: the “new media” environment does not tolerate consensus and is virtually leaderless.
It’s very tempting to claim that digital media and social disintegration have helped populists and fringe radicals become the heroes of the day, but that would be missing the point by miles.
The ever-growing speed of connectivity online has only highlighted the decay of social connectivity “off-line” and the obsolete mechanisms of traditional political decision making and has led to the rapid growth of interactive political tools named with a variety of buzzwords like eParticipation, Digital Democracy, Crowdsource Legislation and the like.
Citizens have started shaping policies directly in cities across Europe, with France, Estonia, Finland and Iceland leading the way from various forms of on-line consultations with citizens to actual co-legislating and interactive policy implementation. UK’s legislature is the latest in discussing a strategy to make Parliament “fully interactive and digital” by 2020.
The case with the European Union is quite different. It’s pointless to argue how far the EU-wide equivalent of “public opinion” has developed; European Citizenship rests widely on the irresponsibly challenged right of free movement; and the European Parliament, the only EU body directly elected by EU citizens is so far failing in its efforts to increase voter interest and turnout.
In addition, the EU does not have the match of national media of its own and has very limited traditional tools of direct interaction with the citizens of the 28 member states.
In the age of mass broadcast and print media that was a huge disadvantage. In the age of new media and digital democracy this might turn into an opportunity.
The poor links between the EU institutions and the European citizens have been at the core of the debate about its democratic credentials. Now that the tools to boost connectivity are at hand, the EU doesn’t need national governments or media to spread its message and can communicate with the EU citizens directly.
The biggest challenge here is not to limit this communication to social media marketing, on-line consultations or participation in drafting policy.
Much like on the national level, citizens are not interested in debating unless they can feel the impact they’ve made on issues they care about.
Technology and communication will not solve any of the functional problems of the EU and Digital Democracy should not be seen as the “ultimate driving machine” of European success, but actively engaging citizens in decision making might well be the driver of much needed European reforms.