Trump, Prostitutes, and 4chan. Still want to ban sites that publish fake news?

Today the big story on the web is that a story leaked from a ‘British intelligence officer’ about Russia blackmailing Donald Trump, published by BuzzFeed, and then dutifully re-posted by other major established media outlets was allegedly made up by posters on 4chan.

Whilst the articles state that the claims are ‘unverified’, and ‘contain errors’, it appears that there has been very little in the way of fact checking or corroboration of sources going on. Indeed, publishing allegations without due dilligence is exactly the operational basis of other sites that don’t fall under the banner of ‘credible’ media. The fact is that the outcome in either case is the same: either willingly or blindly (through a desire to publish content first to drive advertising revenue), these sites are spreading misinformation. Looking at the Mirror’s coverage, one would be forgiven for thinking that the info was at least partially credible:

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It’s all too easy to scoff at the Mirror, or BuzzFeed. Nobody takes them seriously after all; everybody knows that! That clearly isn’t actually the case, and it demonstrates the problem with the reactionary drive towards ‘banning’ or filtering sites that publish fake news from online platforms.

Of course, these claims to have made up the story could very well be made up themselves… but that doesn’t invalidate the criticism. If anything, it highlights the issue with asking or expecting third parties such as online service providers to filter out untrue content.

To echo the questions I raised in my previous post on this topic: Exactly what constitutes fake news, where do we draw the line, at what point do ‘credible’ news sources lose that credibility, and who makes those determinations? Should BuzzFeed articles be removed from Facebook? What about The Mirror? What about CNN? Maybe only articles claiming to have made up fake news should be treated as fake news. Where does it stop?

For an interesting read on this that was shared by my colleague Davide recently, check out this page:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/08/blaming-fake-news-not-the-answer-democracy-crisis

It only gets worse when charges of fake news come from the media, which, due to the dismal economics of digital publishing, regularly run dubious “news” of their own. Take the Washington Post, that rare paper that claims to be profitable these days. What it has gained in profitability, it seems to have lost in credibility.

Edit: I published this earlier today before Trump’s press conference, and felt compelled to update it as a result of what he said. Responding to questions from the media, he apparently decided to pick up the ‘fake news’ mantle:

When Jim Acosta, Senior White House Correspondent for CNN, attempted to ask Trump a question, the President-elect refused to answer. “Not you. Your organization is terrible,” Trump said. “I’m not going to give you a question, you are fake news.”
So now Trump has appropriated the term ‘fake news’ to thwart off any criticism without response. That’s what happens when you set up an empty vessel as something that is inherently wrong with no real definition. This should have been easy to avoid. – (source)

This is precisely why setting up a straw man term such as ‘fake news’ is so dangerous, because an empty vessel that is inherently bad without any clear definition leaves the power in the hands of those who want to wield it for their own ends. If we want to try and combat ‘fake news’, we first need to understand what it is we are fighting against. Otherwise, the question becomes whether it is our version of fake news that is bad, or Donald Trump’s?

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Censoring ‘Fake News’ is the real threat to our online freedom

As the results of the US Presidential election began to sink in, the finger of blame swung around to focus on ‘fake news’ websites, that publish factually incorrect articles with snappy headlines that are ripe for social media dissemination.

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A ‘fake’ headline. Via the Independent.

Ironically, the age of propaganda has previously thought to have died out with the proliferation of easy access to the Internet, with people able to cross-reference and fact check claims from their bedroom, rather than having a single domestic point of information. Instead, what it appears we are seeing is the opposite; people congregating around a single funnel of sources (Facebook), which filters to the top the most widely shared (read: most attention grabbing) articles.

Almost immediately, the socially liberal-leaning technology giants Google and Facebook announced that they would be taking steps to prevent websites from making use of their services. This has sparked a ream of discussion about the ‘responsibility’ of other online platforms to take steps to prevent the spread of these so-called ‘fake news’ sites on their networks.

Here, probably for the first time I can remember, I find myself in agreement with what Zuckerberg has (reportedly) said in response:

The suggestion that online platforms should unilaterally act to restrict ‘fake news’ websites is one of the biggest threats to free speech to face the Internet.

Those are my words, not his – just to be clear. Click through to see what he actually said (well, as long as the source can be trusted).

It is unclear exactly what ‘fake news’ is supposed to be. Some sites ‘outing’ publishers that engage in this sort of activity have included The Onion in their lists, which in of itself demonstrates the problem of singling out websites that publish ‘fake’ news.

  • Where is the line drawn between ‘fake news’ and satire?
  • At what point do factually incorrect articles become ‘fake news’?
  • At what point do ‘trade puffs’ and campaign claims become ‘fake news’ rather than just passionate advocacy?
  • If the defining factor is intent, rather than content, who makes that determination, and based on what set of values?

It is not the job of online platforms to make determinations on the truth of the articles that their users either share, or the content that they themselves publish. There is no moral obligation or imperative on them to editorialise and ensure that only particular messages reach their networks. In fact, it is arguably the complete opposite: they have an ethical obligation to ensure that they do not interfere in the free speech of users, and free dissemination of ideas and information; irrespective of their own views on the ‘truth’ or otherwise of them.

The real challenge to free speech isn’t fake news; it’s the suggestion that we should ban it.

Misinformation is a real issue, and the lazy reliance culture facilitated by networks such as Facebook and Google where any article with a catchy headline is taken at face value is a huge problem, but the answer is not for these networks to take things into their own hands and decide what set of truths are acceptable for us to see, and which are not.

We have reached a position where half of our societies are voting one way, whilst the other half can’t believe that anybody would ever make such a decision, precisely because we have retreated into our own echo chambers – both in the physical world as well as the virtual. The solution to the political struggles we on the left face is not to further restrict the gamut of speech that is open to us in our shared online spaces, or to expect service providers to step up and act as over-arching publishers; it is to get out there and effectively challenge those ideas with people that we would normally avoid engaging with. Curtailing the free speech of others through the arbitrary definition of ‘fake news’ is not only not the answer, but it’s a terrifying prospect to the very freedoms that we are arguing to protect.

The real challenge to free speech isn’t fake news; it’s the suggestion that we should ban it.

Disclaimer: It should go without saying that these are my views, and not necessarily those of WordPress.com, or anybody else.