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.

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Obama’s Immigration Plan: Hollow Words

Immigration. The ugly political topic that quickly ignites guttural feelings from across the political spectrum, allowing fundamentalists to gain ground whilst those seeking compromise rush to take shelter from the crossfire.

Whilst we in the UK have questions about freedom of movement within the EU to deal with, the situation in America is decidedly different. With far poorer neighbours just across a land border to the south, a history of ignorance, and marriage regulations that vary from state to state, it is a complex issue.

As part of his Presidential election campaign in 2008, Obama promised to be the one to bring much needed reform to the immigration policies of the US. His voting record at the time (#) appeared to back up his stance on a more liberal approach – such as giving permanent residence to particular categories of workers who are without a legal right to remain in the country.

In amongst a litany of other broken political promises (Guantanamo Bay, anyone?), there was the specific guarantee to deliver an immigration bill within his first year of office – something that has drawn substantial criticism.

‘I cannot guarantee that it is going to be in the first 100 days. But what I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I’m promoting. And I want to move that forward as quickly as possible.’ (#)

Finally, it was announced a couple of days ago that Obama plans to take executive action to make changes in the way that immigration is handled.

This is to concentrate on three main areas:

  1. Providing more resources to ‘stem the flow of illegal crossings’ at the border.
  2. Making it easier for ‘high-skilled immigrants’ to stay and work in the US.
  3. Moving to ‘deal responsibly’ with those immigrants who already live in the US illegally.

The first two issues are almost a necessity to be mentioned in any proposed change to immigration rules, in order to appease those who will (and have) inevitably been outraged by the prospect of any sort of move that isn’t seen to be ‘cracking down’ on the problem. (#) There’s always a feeling in immigration discussions that political parties are simply moving chairs around on the deck of the Titantic; a lot of what’s being proposed (such as ‘Visa Modernization’) sounds fine and well, but isn’t really anything different to what we’ve been told by any other government before. (More detail #)

The third  issue however, made for some interesting reading, and it’s what Obama spent most of his time explaining in his speech. Obama-Immigration-Transcript.

The gist of it is as follows:

  • There are millions of undocumented immigrants living in America, who contribute to the society. (That’s putting it lightly. Arguably, the whole American economy relies on the exploitation of those living there illegally).
  • It is impractical to track down and deport all of those people.
  • Giving an unconditional amnesty would be unfair to those who had followed the rules to migrate legally.
  • If people (who have been in the US for a certain amount of time, as well as other conditions) are willing to pay taxes, they can register to ‘come out of the shadows and get right with the law’.

Unsurprisingly, this was a clever speech, designed to appeal to all parts of society… Biblical references and all.

‘Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too.’

It is clear that this was as much about a President in his final term forcing the hand of Congress to act, after the Democrats recently suffering a heavy defeat in the midterm elections. This was about throwing a political stake in the sand to try and force change.

‘And to those Members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill.’

It is symbolic, and an admirable aim. However, it appears that this might be all it is.

Obama’s speech was heavy on rhetoric, and almost non-existent on actual content. Looking closer, it is unclear what it actually means to ‘come out of the shadows and get right with the law’. He explicitly stated that this would not grant a permanent right of residence, or any other rights of citizenship.

‘It does not grant citizenship, or the right to stay here permanently, or offer the same benefits that citizens receive’

It isn’t obvious then, why exactly anybody who is currently living in America illegally (and who meets the criteria) would come forward. All this does is give a temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation, which as the President admitted himself, is a threat that would never realistically come to fruition for many people. Wo why take the risk of stepping out of the shadows in the first place? I wouldn’t.

Whilst a highly symbolic, and sophisticated political move, this doesn’t actually confer any real benefit on those who Obama spoke passionately about in his speech: those who ‘work hard, often in tough, low-paying jobs’, who go to the same churches and schools as everyone else, who support families, whose ‘hopes, dreams, and patriotism are just like ours’.

The end game of this move way well be to try and push Congress to make positive changes, but that isn’t the way Obama dressed it up. Instead, he painted a red white and blue striped picture of a glorious America that was embracing brothers and sisters with open arms; as if these changes would give people fundamental and significant protections that they currently don’t have.

They don’t.

It’s infuriating enough on its own to listen to yet more politicking on immigration, but especially so given the false hope that Obama has given to those people that he praised as part of American life.

‘That’s what this debate is all about. We need more than politics as usual when it comes to immigration; we need reasoned, thoughtful, compassionate debate that focuses on our hopes, not our fears.’

These are powerful words, but words which ring hollow in the face of scrutiny.

Sadly people seem more interested in whether this is ‘smart politics’ or legal than about the people the proposed changes are meant to help.

And that’s the problem.