Stifling free speech online in the war on fake news

Politicians around the world are trying to stamp out fake news online but at what cost to freedom of expression?

26 Apr 2019
Illustration: Ben Jennings for Index on Censorship
Illustration: Ben Jennings for Index on Censorship

“Fake news”. The phrase emerged only a matter of years ago to become familiar to everybody. The moral panic around fake news has grown so rapidly that it became a common talking point. In its short life it has been dubbed the Collins Dictionary’s word of 2017 and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists say it was one of the driving factors that made them set their symbolic Doomsday Clock to two minutes from midnight in 2019. It is a talking point on the lips of academics, media pundits and politicians.

For many, it is feared that “fake news” could lead to the end of democratic society, clouding our ability to think critically about important issues. Yet the febrile atmosphere surrounding it has led to legislation around the world which could potentially harm free expression far more than the conspiracy theories being peddled.

In Russia and Singapore politicians have taken steps to legislate against the risk of “fake news” online. A report published in April 2019 by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport could lead to stronger restrictions on free expression on the internet in the UK.

The Online Harms White Paper proposes ways in which the government can combat what are deemed to be harmful online activities. However, while some the harmful activities specified — such as terrorism and child abuse — fall within the government’s scope, the paper also declares various unclearly defined practices such as “disinformation” as under scrutiny.

Internet regulation would be enforced by a new independent regulatory body, similar to Ofcom, which currently regulates broadcasts on UK television and radio. Websites would be expected to conform to the regulations set by the body.

According to Jeremy Wright, the UK’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the intention is that this body will have “sufficient teeth to hold companies to account when they are judged to have breached their statutory duty of care”.

“This will include the power to issue remedial notices and substantial fines,” he says, “and we will consult on even more stringent sanctions, including senior management liability and the blocking of websites.​”

According to Sharon White, the chief executive of the UK’s media regulatory body Ofcom, the term “fake news” is problematic because it “is bandied around with no clear idea of what it means, or agreed definition. The term has taken on a variety of meanings, including a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader.”  The UK government prefers to use the term “disinformation”, which it defines as “information which is created or disseminated with the deliberate intent to mislead; this could be to cause harm, or for personal, political or financial gain”.

However, the difficulty of proving that false information was published with an intention to cause harm could potentially affect websites which publish honestly held opinions or satirical content.

As a concept, “fake news” is frequently prone to bleeding beyond the boundaries of any attempt to define it. Indeed, for many politicians, that is not only the nature of the phrase but the entire point of it.

“Fake news” has become a tool for politicians to discredit voices which oppose them. Although the phrase may have been popularised by US President Donald Trump to attack his critics, the idea of “fake news” has since become adopted by authoritarian regimes worldwide as a justification to deliberately silence opposition.

As late US Senator John McCain wrote in a piece for The Washington Post: “the phrase ‘fake news’ — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens.

“This assault on journalism and free speech proceeds apace in places such as Russia, Turkey, China, Egypt, Venezuela and many others. Yet even more troubling is the growing number of attacks on press freedom in traditionally free and open societies, where censorship in the name of national security is becoming more common.”

In Singapore — a country ranked by Reporters Without Borders as 151 out of 180 nations for press freedom in 2019 — a bill was introduced to parliament ostensibly intended to combat fake news.

Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill would permit government ministers to order the correction or removal of online content which is deemed to be false. It is justified under very broad, tautological definitions which state amongst other things that “a falsehood is a statement of fact that is false or misleading”. On this basis, members of the Singaporean government could easily use this law to censor any articles, memes, videos, photographs or advertising that offends them personally, or is seen to impair the government’s authority.

In addition to more conventional definitions of public interest, the term is defined in the bill as including anything which “could be prejudicial to the friendly relations of Singapore with other countries.” The end result is that Singaporeans could potentially be charged not only for criticising their own government, but Singapore’s allies as well.

Marte Hellema, communications and media programme manager for the human rights organisation FORUM-ASIA explains her organisation’s concerns: “We are seriously concerned that the bill is primarily intended to repress freedom of expression and silence dissent in Singapore.”

Hellema pointed out that the law would be in clear violation of international human rights standards and criticised its use of vague terms and lack of definitions.

“Combined with intrusive measures such as the power to impose heavy penalties for violations and order internet services to disable content, authorities will have the ability to curtail the human rights and fundamental freedoms of anyone who criticises the government, particularly human rights defenders and media,” Hellema says.

In Russia, some of the most repressive legislation to come out of the wave of talk about “fake news” was signed into law earlier this year.

In March 2019, the Russian parliament passed two amendments to existing data legislation to combat fake news on the internet.

The laws censor online content which is deemed to be “fake news” according to the government, or which “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of the Russian Federation”.

Online news outlets and users which repeatedly run afoul of the laws will face fines of up to 1.5 million roubles (£17,803) for being seen to have published “unreliable” information.

Additionally, individuals who have been accused of specifically criticising the state, the law or the symbols which represent them risk further fines of 300,000 roubles (£3,560) or even prison sentences.

The move has been criticised by public figures and activists, who see the new laws as an attempt to stifle public criticism of the government and increase control over the internet. The policy is regarded as a continuation of previous legislation in Russia designed to suppress online anonymity and blacklist undesirable websites.

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