False information and gossip have surely circulated ever since humans gained the ability to communicate, but Donald Trump has turned “fake news” into a catchphrase that has the public wondering who to trust and where to get their information.
Last Wednesday’s Fake News Awards identified the top 10 bogus news reports surrounding his presidency and while many media outlets clearly have a problem with accurate reporting, audiences should not forget that global governments have a long, untrustworthy history of determining what information is and is not valid.
The degeneration of the news media is impossible to deny; even mainstream networks are increasingly susceptible to broadcasting false narratives that fit in with their political agendas.
A Gallup poll from 2016 recorded the lowest seen level of public trust in the media, with only 35% of people reporting even a fair amount of trust in the media. Pew Research also found that 64% of people think that there is a great deal of confusion around the facts of current affairs these days. But is finger-pointing by the president really a solution, or is it just inflaming a bad situation?
The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign triggered a worldwide panic over the prevalence of “fake news” disseminated through social media, and a host of governments are taking the opportunity to create new “anti-fake news” restrictions that may have real implications for freedom of speech.
AN EXCUSE FOR SPEECH CONTROL
President Trump is hardly the only world leader who has decided to take action against “fake news” distributors. In an amusing yet ultimately disturbing episode earlier this month, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha began a press conference by presenting a cardboard cut-out of himself and instructing reporters to address their questions to it, before simply walking off. Prayuth, a general who took power as part of a bloodless coup and has been criticized for restricting free expression, joked in 2015 that he would execute journalists who “do not tell the truth.”Apparently, he had identified fake news before “fake news” was even a thing, adding that, “You don’t have to support the government, but you should report the truth.” Not many world leaders display the Thai PM’s panache, but governments in countries as varied as France, Brazil and Singapore are moving to suppress so-called fake news.
French president Emmanuel Macron raised concerns when he announced that he will be introducing legislation to crack down on fake news stories during elections, by awarding extra powers to the country’s media watchdog, the CSA. Macron, who accused Russia of disrupting his own presidential campaign with fake news and data breaches, said, “We will develop our legal system to protect democracy from this fake news.” He added during a joint press conference with Russian President Putin, “When media organs spread slanderous falsehoods, they are no longer journalists.”
Unlike Trump, however, Macron isn’t targeting complicit mainstream institutions, but rather the general population via social media. Under the proposed law, judges and the CSA would have the power to stop the broadcasting of anything deemed “fake news,” and websites would be forced to disclose their sources and funding during elections.
Conflating Hate Speech
Germany is well ahead of the curve here: as of January 1, Germany has already enacted the Network Enforcement Act (NetDG) that similarly targets social media accounts, with multi-million Euro fines for any sites that fail to remove “hate speech” and “fake news” within one week. The tactic is essentially to encourage the public to police itself; social media users are able to report each other to site authorities by selecting the option “It’s a fake news story” on a form.
Brazil’s approach is altogether more heavy-handed, with the police tweeting this ominous message:
In the next few days, the Federal Police will begin activities in Brasília (with) a specially formed group to combat false news during the election process. The measures are intended to identify and punish the authors of ‘fake news’ for or against candidates.
The country, which has its upcoming election in October 2018, has suggested the implementation of a 1983 censorship law that was created under the repressive 1945-1985 military dictatorship which made it a crime to “spread rumors that caused panic.” Again, the target isn’t mainstream media outlets but social media users, with the WhatsApp private messenger service in particular identified as a fake news threat.
India has also cracked down on what they see as false information on WhatsApp, with criminal charges now able to be brought against anyone found to be disseminating fake news, and group administrators prosecuted for content posted by any member of the group.
It looks like the fake news hysteria is set to spread even further, with Singapore and Britain undergoing inquiries into the phenomena and how to tackle it, and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte in the process of shutting down online media agency Rappler, calling it a “fake news outlet.”
THE REAL THREAT TO DEMOCRACY
With social media turning every citizen into a possible news distributor, it is in large part the citizen who is being targeted by new laws. It seems highly unlikely that the Trump administration is planning any of its own free speech restrictions, but a government fixation on fake news is evidently having an effect on a worldwide scale. Governments are using this so-called “threat to democracy” as a means to punish the spreading of phony information, but who is to be the judge of just what news is false?
Unfortunately, social media management and news organizations have become so bloated and complacent that they no longer have a leg to stand on, regularly pushing their own agendas at the expense of accurate reporting. When it comes to finding out the truth behind current affairs, readers may increasingly find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place; the government and the press.
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