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
Attempts to censor alleged “fake news” on the Internet will backfire massively. The main stream media and main stream politicians should rather make a better effort to convince people. The internet is open to them too.
One of the promises of the internet has been that it will bring about better democracy (here and here, for example). Even before the web was invented, Vannevar Bush, the creator of the hypertext concept and the Memex machine expected that science and information will lead to a better society (source).
Since 1990s, when those ideas started to materialize, everybody saw that the internet was vastly increasing the access to information and the ease of connecting people.
The conventional wisdom has been that better informed citizens would be making better political decisions and that the more connected people will also be forging a more tightly connected society. This would both lead to e- (for electronic) or i- (for internet) democracy.
The peak of eDemocracy
In retrospect, it would appear that the peak eDemocracy optimism was reached in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States.
His was one of the first campaigns where the internet played a major – some would say decisive – role. Facebooks’ revolutions, Ukrainan and Arab Springs, reinforced the hope in the positive change that information technology can bring to the world.
Social media like blogs, Facebook and Twitter were the heroes of the day. Revolutions were won on Twitter and dictators toppled on Facebook.
And then Brexit and Trump won. No longer are the social media the heroes of the day. On the contrary. The internet is now blamed for results that were not what the main stream media and the intelligentsia recommended.
There is an old saying that goes, “On the internet no one knows you are a dog”. On Facebook no one knows your news company has a skyscraper on Manhattan or offices on Fleet Street.
You could be a teenager in Macedonia or an independent writing for Breitbart News or an anonymous blogger. The internet would carry your messages in exactly the same way as if you were a “proper” media.
Social Networks would disseminate news based on enthusiasm of readers’ recommendations, not based on pedigree.
Brexit and Trump
For the first time people’s opinions were largely shaped by their peers not by professional opinion makers and thought leaders. We, the people, were the gatekeepers, not the main stream media.
Greener’s Law – don’t argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel – was proven wrong. It is a version of a saying “you don’t argue with children or the journalists”. The first would in the end throw a stone into your window, the journalist would always have the last word.
Trump was able to wage a frontal war with main stream media and was able to win it. On the Internet, the social media has the last word.
Ending up in the losing side, the main stream media invented excuses and concepts such as fake news and post truth. It had the opposite effect.
People were reminded, on the internet, that it was the old media that has been biased and openly colluded with one of the sides in the UK referendum and US elections. News from main stream media was labelled “fake news” too, just as was from the new media.
Internet as a threat
For the main stream media and main stream politics the internet suddenly fell of grace – it is not a tool of human rights and democracy any more. Free and open internet is not seen as an asset of our democracy but a threat.
Politicians, particularly in Europe, are speaking openly about the threat that Facebook and other social media are for democracy. They are calling for the regulation of social networks (Germany, France, EU).
They would like to ban fake news and make sure that only the properly verified content can be spread by the users. It is tragic to see how happy the internet companies are to comply (Facebook), instead of standing firm and not letting any form of censorship interfere with the free exchange of ideas on their networks.
The established politics and media cannot afford that democratic procedures – with the help of social networks – bring about a wrong result again. In 2017 there will be very important elections in France and Germany and the anxiety is understandable.
But calling results of a democratic election or a referendum wrong is the essence of a failed understanding of democracy and of the impacts of internet on democracy. That it causes wrong results. That democracy reaches wrong decisions.
What happened to the maxim that “in a democracy the people are always right”?
Friction free democracy
Bill Gates famously said that the essential contribution of the internet is that it reduces friction in the economy. That it brings buyers and sellers closer together and is providing more information about each other.
The same that was said about the economic market can be said about the political market. There is less friction between the will of the people and politics. There is more information about the people and about politicians.
It would be wrong to re-introduce friction – with measures that are essentially censorship by some kind of an Orwellian ministry of truth. In Germany an organization called Correctiv will be telling what is the Truth and what is not. In France a panel of old media representatives will be doing the same.
I have no doubt in the good intentions of all that. As I have no doubt that the social media companies are playing along not because of good intentions but because of business interests.
I am just afraid that it will backfire. Backfire massively. And the stakes are simply too high. The very existence of the European Union is hanging by the thread of the French elections. And with the existence of the European Union the existence of European Civilization. It can’t be protected by former superpowers individually.
Use the level playing field
Instead of shaping the internet according to their wishes, the main stream media and main stream politicians should make a better effort to convince people. The internet is open to them too.
They will need to do better than calling someone a fascist or a populist. The net should be used to debate issues not exchange labels and hashtags. It should be used to argue. To speak to people’s fears and dreams. This is not populism, this is democracy.
Will we get a wrong result? When asked if the French Revolution was a positive or a negative event in history, chairman Mao answered that it may be too early to tell.
This may be a post truth story but it helps introduced my point. Which is, it may be too early to tell if Brexit was wrong. I think it was a mistake. But I also think blaming the internet for it is a mistake as well. And drawing policy decisions from this wrong diagnosis would lead to even graver mistakes.
The internet is making democracy more challenging and open. Having friends and support in main stream media is not enough anymore.
People, not just journalists, are gatekeepers and they need to be convinced. So let’s stop bashing Facebook, let’s stop blaming Russian hackers, lets scrap the ideas for censorship of social networks. Let’s stand for the freedom of speech with includes freedom to fake news!
The so called populists thrive on “us” vs. “them” narrative. People have sympathy for the underdogs. They elected Trump and chose Brexit against the better advice of the dominant speech in the main stream media.
If that domination spreads to the social media as well, the job of “populists” would only be easier. Whole internet cannot be controlled. Somewhere they will read how unfair the battle of their David against the enemies’ Goliath is.
Fake news neutrality
Out societies need more trust. And that means trusting people that they will be able to distinguish between true and fake themselves. And trust the idea that true can win over fake without tilting the playing field against the fake.
Let’s trust in the power of true and the weakness of fake enough to keep the internet and the social networks “fake news” neutral and open to all.
Picture credit: AlexaGrace8495