In 2017, the term “fake news” was used 365 percent more often than in 2016, earning the award for “Word of the Year” by the Collins Dictionary. Yet, fake news remains one of those highly politicized terms that gain popularity in the public discourse, while few agree on what it really means. Indeed, the term is often used to refer to both deliberately fabricated news and inaccurate or incorrect information, going beyond content that can be considered illegal according to the limitations placed upon freedom of expression in human rights law, such as propaganda for war and incitement to hostility and violence. In the public discourse, fake news is often a catch-all term, used to smear opposing points of view: Trump accuses well-established American media such as CNN of fabricating fake news about him, while his opponents blame fake news spread on social media, and possibly pushed by external powers, for his election victory.
They may all be correct to some extent. If we think of fake news as disinformation and misinformation, we could indeed start seeing it everywhere. We find it on social media platforms where sensational fake news is fabricated in order to gain political followers or, simply, to make money (like the Macedonian teenagers who made thousands of dollars by producing fake articles during the U.S. presidential campaign). But it can also be found on reputable traditional media, such as the widespread reports of weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The discussions that saw the recent popularization of the term, however, often focus on how the internet and social media amplify the spreading of misinformation to larger audiences, giving anybody the means to impart information in the public sphere and favoring content that is quick and easy. Worryingly, with the development of new technologies and artificial intelligence, new challenges may lie ahead, such as video and audio manipulation.
Yet, presenting fake news as a new phenomenon is both incorrect and dangerous. It is incorrect because misinformation is nothing new, nor limited to social media. It is dangerous because, on the false premise of a new problem, governments are calling for new solutions to control the spreading of (mis)information and regulate content, proposing fixes that risk shrinking the space to challenge those in power. This is why it is crucial for people around the globe to understand the impact that current narratives on fake news and proposed solutions may have on their potential to be active and free citizens, in order to preserve the possibility of dissent and maintain a pluralistic and informative public sphere.
Content regulation as a mechanism of state control
In the words of Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher on technology and human rights in Iran at the Oxford Internet Institute and at Article 19, “the fake news discourse is … the greatest gift that President Trump has given to governments like the Iranian government … trying to control and manipulate how information flows within a country.” Indeed, cases of governments picking on fake news as the latest excuse to crackdown on dissenting voices are sadly flourishing in all corners of the globe. To mention a few, China has prohibited websites from “quoting from unnamed or fake news sources.” Egypt’s latest anti-terrorism law provides for a minimum fine of $25,000 (enough to shut down any independent media organization) for journalists accused of “false” reporting on terrorism-related issues. In preparation for the 2018 elections, Brazil is considering a bill to criminalize the sharing of false information on social media, and it has established a committee — the Consultative Council on Internet and Elections — to monitor fake news. As security forces are included in the committee, concerns abound from Brazilian activists that “the armed forces [will] monopolize control of the truth.”
But content regulation to fight fake news is concerning activists in what would be considered well-established democracies as well. For example, in June last year the German parliament voted for a bill to fine social media platforms that fail to remove illegal content within 24 hours, which can include hate speech and fake news. This triggered concerns over accidental and privatized censorship due to the short time-frame allowed for analysis of each case. Emmanuel Macron started 2018 by announcing that his government is developing rules to crack down on fake news, including the possibility for judges to block accounts.
Dunja Mijatovic, former OSCE representative on freedom of the media, is worried about these trends. In December, at the annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, she said, “There are more and more calls by political leaders around the world saying that they will fix fake news, so the society will be protected. Why should I trust any government agency or any search engine or any intermediary to tell me what is right and what is wrong? … I do not want anybody to filter my mind.”
Indeed, top-down approaches to fake news disregard the existence of propaganda and the fact that misinformation can be spread by governments themselves and used to advance their own interests. Letting governments control narratives can result in the homogenization of available information, which would be dangerous for democratic debate, and paradoxical if this was to occur in the name of protecting “truth” itself.
Regulatory efforts proposed by state authorities go hand-in-hand with pressure on platforms to take initiatives to tackle fake news and self-regulate. It was in the run-up to the French election that saw Macron elected, for example, that Google and Facebook teamed up with a variety of news organization to flag content regarded as false or misleading, a feature already introduced in the United States and recently modified to display “related articles” that provide alternative insights into a topic. Similar measures are being discussed in view of upcoming elections in Italy.
However, investing social media platforms, and thus private companies, with the task of managing content can be extremely problematic. Social media platforms have been criticized for their lack of transparency about the mechanisms and algorithms used to prioritize content, often influenced by the power of money and by a business model based on maximizing clicks for advertisement purposes. The arbitrariness of platforms’ decisions may go well beyond content prioritization, as was the case with Twitter’s suspension of the account of an Egyptian human rights activist and journalist, Wael Abbas, without any public explanation.
Another danger is that social media platforms can be co-opted by governments. For example, Facebook has been removing content published by Palestinian activists at the request of the Israeli government. This has created an asymmetrical social media sphere where hate speech and misinformation by some is removed, but not by others.
The ability of platforms to flag “disputed” content (which is different from illegal content that should be removed) may also lead the public to approach online information with a less critical attitude, as if critical thinking is possible to outsource.
It is perhaps critical thinking itself that is most deeply challenged by the fake news frenzy. In the words of Frank La Rue, a human rights lawyer and assistant director-general for communication and information at UNESCO, “fake news is a trap. Why? Because … they are trying to dissuade us from reading the news and thinking.” In other words, fake news narratives risk making citizens increasingly cynical about information in general, which could result in a sort of agnosticism to news and information. This could lead to public disengagement, a condition in which the powerful go unchallenged and collective action for the defense of citizens’ rights becomes harder to achieve.
Human Rights Watch Deputy Executive Director Iain Levine explained how fake news may not only be an excuse for authorities to silence dissent but also to avoid accountability. “Political leaders around the world have begun to use the label ‘fake news’ as a smear on fact-finding by journalists, human rights organizations, perhaps even prosecutors,” he wrote. “In doing so, they seek to break the link between evidence and culpability, making it more difficult to ensure those accountable pay for their misdeeds.”
Preserving the possibility of dissent and accountability
How then, can we resist this shift towards asymmetrical content control in the name of tackling fake news?
It is first of all necessary to recast the terms of the fake news debate. The concern over fake news can be a genuine one. For example, human rights activists in Europe and in the United States may worry about the fabrication of stories that portray migrants and refugees as criminals in order to spread hatred and fear. Yet, it is crucial that the same activists understand that the battle for information is both a battle against misinformation campaigns coming from all sides and one against proposed top-down fixes to the fake news problem, which would result in state control over what is publicly considered true and false.
A step in this direction was taken by more than 30 civil society organizations from across Latin America and the Caribbean who came together to write an open letter precisely critical of the fake news discourse. The letter was read at the closing session of the Internet Governance Forum — which brings together governments, the private sector and civil society to discuss anything related to digital policy. The letter’s aim was to protest the framing of the fake news debate, which they see as “empowering traditional media monopolies” and “opening space for surveillance, content manipulation and censorship” from platforms and governments.
However, it is crucial to bring this criticism out of a specialized context like the Internet Governance Forum and into the public discourse. Digital activists, who are directly engaged with online content policies, should build alliances with activists involved with other issues — as access to information and freedom of expression is at the basis of any type of collective action, both online and offline. It is through these collaborations that the elaboration of valid bottom-up solutions to misinformation can be conceived.
These may include continuing to promote independent fact-checking projects, as well as equipping the public with tools to support them in navigating the web. The Hypothesis Project, for example, uses open-source technology to allow users to annotate online content, so that isolated pieces of information can be linked to others, facilitating collaborative investigations and allowing the internet to be a web of linked information, rather than a trap of filter bubbles.
Platforms should also be held to account, but rather than trusting them with filtering content, it is necessary to demand more transparency on how content is prioritized or removed, so that citizens can become aware of the mechanisms that define which news will reach them. At the same time, censorship and surveillance should be resisted, by continuing the fight for encryption and internet anonymity to protect activists against repressive practices.
It is also vital to continue to challenge (state-sanctioned) narratives with full commitment to evidence-based reporting. According to Robert Trafford, researcher at Forensic Architecture, the current polarization in the public discourse over the veracity of news opens an opportunity to “explain to society as a whole why investigative reporting is valuable and a resource to be cherished.”
Forensic Architecture is an interdisciplinary team of researchers that investigate human rights violations in the context of urban conflict, where narratives can be particularly polarized. “There is this idea of state control of factual output and one of the things that is very powerful about Forensic Architecture’s work is that we are able to conduct counter-forensic work which reverts the gaze of state investigators,” Trafford said.
Forensic Architecture’s researchers do this by mixing innovation and rigorous academic method. They often use the proliferation of online visual materials — such as videos filmed by the communities affected by human rights violations — shared on social media as a valuable source of information. They then use such evidence to support the affected communities, grassroots groups and human rights activists in court trials. But they also work with journalists and create videos and exhibitions to make the stories that they unveil accessible to as wide a public as possible.
While Forensic Architecture’s investigations have faced attempts at obfuscation — and in certain instances have been called fake news — they may be less vulnerable to such discrediting precisely because of their rigorous approach to evidence.
“When I write on behalf of Forensic Architecture, I am able to do so with absolute confidence that the method of evidence creation is an academic one, and thus constantly reviewed with ethics and procedures,” Trafford said. “When we produce a report we give the credentials of everyone who is involved.”
The same kind of methodological transparency should be applied by any organizations involved in the fact checking of news.
Ultimately, the issue of the production, control and consumption of information is an extremely complex one. Thus, ensuring diverse information, as well as freedom of expression, is a task that requires many different approaches. Most activists seem to agree that if an antidote to fake news exists — within a truly democratic society where freedom of expression is respected — it will arrive through education and be based on critical thinking.
“Instead of pouring enormous amount of money into fixing fake news, governments should … give more to support education and the plurality of voices that we need if we want to live in democracy,” Mijatovic said. As governments may remain unlikely to do so spontaneously, it is up to organizers and citizens to make sure that this demand is heard loud and clear.