I am informed; you are misinformed; and the government should do something about this problem
Poynter, the famous journalism thinktank, has published “A guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world.” This sort of thing is mostly interesting not just for the particular facts it gathers but also for the assumptions and categories it takes for granted. The word “misinformation” is thrown around, as are “hate speech” and “fake news.” The European Commission, it seems, published a report on “misinformation” (the report itself says “disinformation”) in order to “help the European Union figure out what to do about fake news.” Not only does this trade on a ridiculously broad definition of “disinformation,” it assumes that disinformation is somehow a newly pronounced or important problem, that it is the role of a supernational body (the E.U.) to figure out what to do about this problem, and that it is also the role of that body to “do something.” Mind you, there might be some government “actions” that strike me as being possibly defensible; but the majority that I reviewed looked awful.
For example, look at what Italy has done:
A little more than a month before the general election, the Italian government announced Jan. 18 that it had set up an online portal where citizens could report fake news to the police.
The service, which prompts users for their email addresses, a link to the fake news and any social media networks they saw it on, ferries reports to the Polizia Postale, a unit of the state police that investigates cyber crime. The department will fact-check them and — if laws were broken — pursue legal action. At the very least, the service will draw upon official sources to deny false or misleading information.
That plan came amid a national frenzy over fake news leading into the March 4 election and suffered from the same vagueness as the ones in Brazil, Croatia and France: a lacking definition of what constitutes “fake news.”
Poynter, which I think it’s safe to say is an Establishment thinktank, mostly just dutifully reports on these developments. In their introduction, they do eventually (in the fourth paragraph) get around to pointing out some minor problems with these government efforts: the difficulty of defining “fake news” and, of course, that pesky free speech thing.
That different countries are suddenly engaging in press censorship is only part of the news. The other part is that Poynter, representing the journalistic Establishment, apparently does not find it greatly alarming about “governments” that are “taking action.” Well, I do. Just consider the EU report’s definition of “disinformation”:
Disinformation as defined in this Report includes all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit.
This implies that if in the opinion of some government authority, some claim is merely false and, like most professional publishing operations it is published for profit, then it counts as disinformation. This means that (with an exception made for non-profit publishers, apparently) the E.U. considers anything false to be an item of disinformation, and thus presumably ripe for some sort of regulation or sanction.
Well, of course this sounds ridiculous, but I am just reading. It’s not my fault if that’s what the report says. I mean, I’m sorry, but it certainly does look as if the E.U. wants to determine what’s false and to then to ban it (or something). Of course, the definition does first say that disinformation is designed to intentionally cause public harm, but anybody who reads legalistic texts needs to bear in mind that, as far as the law is concerned, the parts that come after “or” and “and” are just as important as the parts that come before. The text does say “or for profit.” Is that because in the E.U., seeking profit is as suspect as intentionally causing public harm?
The difficulty about texts like this, aside from the fact that they are insufferably dull, is that they are so completely chock-full of bad writing, bad reasoning, false assumptions, and so forth, that it would take several volumes to say everything that needs saying about the E.U. report and Poynter’s run-down of government actions. What about all the important issues associated with what looks like a worldwide crackdown on free speech? They have been solved, apparently.
Poynter at least has the good sense to acknowledge difficulties, as they do at the end of the discussion of Italy’s regulatory scheme. The government positions are appalling, as if they were saying: “We know what fake news and disinformation and misinformation are, more or less. Sure, there’s a small intellectual matter of defining them, but no big deal there. It’s just a matter of deciding what needs to be done. Free speech, well, that’s just another factor to be weighed.”
Just imagine reading this page just twenty years ago. It would have been regarded as an implausible horrorshow. I imagine how someone might have responded to a glimpse 20 years into the future:
What are you saying–in 2018, countries all around the world will decide that it’s time to start seriously cracking down on “misinformation” because it’s too easy to publish false stuff online, and free speech and freedom of the press? That’s ridiculous. It’s one thing to get upset about “political incorrectness,” but it’s another thing altogether for the freedom-loving West, and especially for journalists (for crying out loud!) to so bemoan “hate speech” and “fake news” (really?) that they’ll give up free speech and start calling on their governments to exert control. That’s just…ridiculous. Do you think we’ll forget everything we know about free speech and press freedom in 20 years?
Well, it would have been ridiculous in 1998. Twenty years later, it still should be, but apparently it isn’t for so many sophisticated, morally enlightened leaders who can identify what is true and what is misinformation.
It’s time to push back.