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.

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.


Why do we keep losing the argument? A response to Trump’s victory.

For the third time in recent memory, I’ve woken up from a restless night to the news of a political outcome that feels more akin to a dystopian nightmare than reality.

My heart goes out to my friends and family in America and beyond who are crushed, and in despair at the result of the Presidential election. I know and deeply resonate with the sudden, terrible feeling that you don’t live in the country you thought you did; the realisation that the majority of your fellow country-people do not share the same hopeful and inclusive perspective that you hold as such an integral part of your identity. It’s important to take the time to mourn that loss, and we are grieving alongside you.

When the initial shock clears (and it will), we need you to help us take a step back and work out why we on the socially liberal side of the spectrum keep ending up on the losing end of these political outcomes. Why is it such a surprise to us that the results are what they are? How can so many people feel this way, and take positions that we find untenable, and us not realise?

I’ve had time to reflect on some of this since the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and then the recent Brexit vote. The reason these results seem to come completely out of the blue to so many of us isn’t so much because of the existence of a ‘silent majority’… you only need to go down to any pub or bar to hear the exact same views espoused by Trump and Farage… Instead, the real reason is that we have walled ourselves off from these irritants, creating quasi echo chambers where our only associations are those who either agree with us, or who we can have coherent conversations. The distinction there is important – as the problem is comprised of two elements: We avoid interacting with those who hold these opposing views as they seem so inconceivably awful, and when we do, we don’t even know how to engage with them properly.

Deleting people from your Facebook for posting racist, sexist, or otherwise derogatory and intolerant statements might well be part of the issue (as people are so keen to point out), but it is often the only thing that can reasonable be done to avoid getting involved in daily arguments. There is no escaping the fact that the recent wave of populism often seems completely blind to any sort of reasoned debate or discussion, and trying to get a cohesive position from many can be impossible, and frustrating. Asking somebody to provide evidence for their claims, or point out inconsistencies in their logic leads nowhere but anger, and whilst it might well win the argument, it isn’t winning anybody over.

I don’t believe that what we are witnessing is some sort of a working class movement, as some have claimed, and it certainly isn’t a battle between left and right. This is a new kind of class movement, one where those who feel disenfranchised and disempowered, and who may not necessarily be able to articulate exactly why they feel the way they do are attempting to wrest some sort of control out of a system that has failed them. Arguably though, the biggest failiure has been the ability of those of us who hold apparently ‘enlightened’ views to even begin to effectively communicate with these people, or appreciate the real issues that they face. They are real people in our communities, but ones whose views we have chosen to try and avoid conflict, which instead has only served to facilitate their growth.

I’m not sure how we do this, but if we are ever going to turn things around, we need to find ways to both interact with those on the other side of the fence, but also to engage with them. Not avoiding the discussions is probably an important first step.