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Monday, April 3, 2017

Robbie Travers : The "Fake News" Censorship Industry


  • Name a single person or organisation you trust to control your speech. Whom would you trust to control what you can read, or make decisions on what is true and what is false for you? Whom do you trust to police what you think?
  • The German government thinks it knows exactly who should be the arbiter of truth and what articles you should be allowed to post. Itself!
  • This would lead to a monopolisation of the media industry. One or two large platforms would dominate the public debate; fringe voices would be ignored or cast aside.
  • Who is to police the police? Facebook, caught out, already had to dismiss those compiling their trending stories, when it was revealed that they had a runaway political bias and were routinely suppressing (conservative) material with which they did not agree.
  • The whole censorship industry is open to abuse; presumably, that is what censorship is for in the first place.
Name a single person or organisation you trust to control your speech. Whom would you trust to control what you can read, or make decisions on what is true and what is false for you? Whom do you trust to police what you think?

The German government thinks it knows exactly who should be the arbiter of truth and what articles you should be allowed to post. Itself!

After a bill was proposed by German lawmakers, which threatened fines of up to 500,000 euros ($522,000) for publishing "fake news," Facebook decided to use an organisation called Correctiv, described as a German fact-checking non-profit organisation, to decide whether reported stories are "real" or "fake."

This system would then encourage individual Facebook users to report other users' posts to Correctiv. Facebook would then have Correctiv label any of the articles "fake news," as they see fit.

Even then, this proposed response by Facebook was not harsh enough for some German lawmakers, who want articles deemed to be fake by the government to be removed within 24 hours, or else fine Facebook 500,000 euros. That move would undoubtedly lead to individuals abandoning Facebook for other social networks, or more probably, Facebook abandoning them. German attempts to police the Facebook could end up useless; to many, the plan looks suspiciously like a money-making stratagem.

A centralized "speech police" would also create a monopolisation of the media industry. One or two large platforms would dominate the public debate; fringe voices would be ignored and cast aside.


If there is an organisation created to adjudicate "truth," how does one criticise the organisation? Surely an organisation with no mechanism to be criticized or left with the "honour system" to criticise itself should raise alarm bells.

News sources dismissed by governments may often speak the truth. What if they are right? Valuable news may come from outside the mainstream media.

At a time when the established media are not particularly trusted to begin with, how could censorship not harm faith in the news even more? In the event of any dispute, smaller companies would not be able to afford expensive lawyers to fight the German government. How long until the war chests of social media users empty, compared to the virtually inexhaustible resources of the German state?

Furthermore, how do all these policing networks ensure the neutrality of their staff, who are supposedly determining the accuracy of articles? Who is to police the police?
Facebook, caught out, already had to dismiss those compiling their trending stories, when it was revealed that they had a runaway political bias and were routinely suppressing (conservative) material with which they did not agree.

Facebook's "Trending News Team" banned people exposing jihadists, but allowed pages glorifying anti-police violence and pages promoting anti-Israeli terrorism. That is quite a track record.

Individuals, without even inciting violence, have been wrongly censored by Facebook. A former Gatestone writer, Ingrid Carlqvist, saw her account suspended; Gatestone writer Douglas Murray's articles were censored from Facebook; and this author had his Facebook blocked for questioning Black Lives Matter. All the banned authors challenged politically correct revisions of events.

The whole censorship industry is open to abuse; presumably, that is what censorship is for in the first place. What is to stop individuals from stigmatizing an article multiple times? Algorithms and sophisticated computer programs could silence articles, as well. New information comes along, which changes statistics or facts that were believed to be accurate at the time. All it takes is a single complaint of "fake news" to tarnish a true article with that label -- putting a stain on a journalist either out of political motivation, malice, or simply by mistake. Even algorithms make mistakes. People would start to wonder what they could report that would not be considered "fake news". Is that the kind of press the free world wants?

The German government could start fining, as "fake news," political opinions it finds "inconvenient" -- a perfect way to close down discussion.

No government should be deciding what is worthy and what is unworthy of being published. News organisations often publish stories that governments might think is not in the national interest. It is much too easy to declare a story "fake" because it might not suit a political interest. That is the method used by dictatorships; it is correctly called authoritarian abuse.

The best way to counter fake news is to let people speak freely, check the facts, then present a counter-argument. The marketplace of ideas will decide its fate.
Robbie Travers, a political commentator and consultant, is Executive Director of Agora, former media manager at the Human Security Centre, and a law student at the University of Edinburgh.
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