Policing 'fake' news: Who decides?

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(Image adapted by DonkeyHotey from a photo by Michael Vadon / Flickr)

Facebook and the government of Singapore have announced plans to combat 'fake' news but can they be trusted not to abuse this power? Dr Martin Hirst reports.

ARE WE in the middle of a "fake" news pandemic? The issue has certainly got the attention of people who care about, or who claim to care about, such issues.

The President of the United States certainly thinks fake news is a huge problem. He tweets about it constantly and has even called the American news media the “real enemy of the people”.

For Americans who believe passionately in the First Amendment, this is horrifying and scary rhetoric, particularly when it butts up so closely the Second Amendment. (That’s the one about carrying a locked and loaded machine gun slung casually over one camo-covered shoulder while strolling around the shopping mall on the lookout for a bad guy with a gun.)

Journalism and media academics are also taking the fake news threat seriously judging by a recent trawl through the journal articles on the subject. According to the EBSCO Complete database, of 268 academic pieces written on fake news since 2002, 210 were written in the two-and-a-half years.

Is the news-consuming public really all that concerned about fake news and sorting out news-truth from news-fiction? We are consuming mountains of fake news on a daily basis. Perhaps overall we are intellectually poorer as a result, but it is actually hard to tell. Maybe, our BS filters are now highly attuned to fakery and we weed it out without thinking. Or, in a darker vein, have we just given up even trying?

It would be a shame if we just cynically give up on truth and lean into fake news with a defeated shrug of the shoulders. Sometimes this must seem like a tempting option to some people. How can we stem the tidal flow of junk and fake news? How can we prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed?

It’s not necessarily an easy question to answer. According to the self-appointed experts – a group that appears to have far too many intersections with the news establishment – we really only have two choices.

The first is that we let the corporate players decide for us with their "recommendations" about which news sources we should trust. The second is that we simply give the responsibility to governments and let them legislate their own definitions of fake news and a system for policing the media.

Trust me, I’m from Facebook

Just this week, Mark Zuckerberg announced yet another Facebook plan to eradicate fake news from the social media platform. Like most things Zuckerberg announces, the details are sketchy. It is not clear if actual humans would be involved in this mammoth editing task, or if it would be left to artificial intelligence to sift and sort the "good" news from the dross and drivel that clogs up our Facebook news feeds.

But why would we trust Facebook? If you recall the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, you’ll remember that a lot of the fake news circulating during the campaign was fed to us via Facebook. Over the past two years, Facebook says it made repeated attempts to clean up its news feeds by filtering out unreliable news sources.

It has failed and we have no guarantee from Mr Zuckerberg that this time would be any better.

The last time Facebook hired real people to take on editing in-house it was an expensive flop that was eventually canned. Why? Because Zuckerberg listened to his corporate friends and fellow one-percenters when they complained to him that the Facebook news feed had a "liberal" bias. Remember in American terms, "liberal" means progressive and anything standing to the left of the Republican Party and conservative pro-establishment Democrats.

This is how Jim Waterson framed it in The Guardian:

Facebook’s previous record of using human editors to oversee news has been patchy. It sacked all the staff working on its trending news feature after they were accused of pro-liberal bias in the US by Republican politicians, leaving the social network with a reputational headache during the 2016 US Presidential election which predated widespread concerns about fake news and disinformation.

That sounds about right. The alternative to human editing is artificial intelligence, or "AI".

But AI is a misnomer. Yes, it’s artificial, but it is a human-generated algorithm that has some small capacity for in-built self-correction. It is hardly what we might normally consider "intelligent". At best, it has "confirmation bias" built into it; at worst, it exhibits all the prejudices of its creators.

Given that Facebook is likely to preference the high-end establishment media over smaller, progressive independents – for example, the New York Times (NYT) will get a higher score than Independent Australia in the algorithm’s internal logic circuits – confirmation bias will mean that AI learns to favour sources like the NYT on a regular basis. This eventually creates a news vacuum that excludes the non-mainstream sources.

In the local context the implications are perhaps worse, given the lack of diversity in the mainstream news media. The Australian, Daily Telegraph, The Herald-Sun, Sky News and Channel Nine will all rank above Crikey, New Matilda, The Saturday Paper, New Daily, community radio and Independent Australia in the credibility league ladder.

There’s another reason that the news establishment will be happy with this arrangement. It looks like Facebook will also start paying royalties again for access to mainstream content repurposed for its news feeds.

As Jim Waterson rightly observed:

'The move would be likely to benefit long-established traditional publishers, which tend to top trust rankings and have been long-time critics of the existing Facebook model.'

It would also add to the profitability of the corporate news providers, thus artificially extending their life span well beyond their nearly-expired use-by date.

Trust me, I’m from the government

In some quarters, the proposal to allow governments to define fake news and then police the media according to that definition is being actively considered as a good move.

In November 2018, France, the spiritual home of the bourgeois revolutions that toppled the aristocracy, enacted laws which ban "fake news" during election campaigns.

Perhaps the irony of this was not apparent to French President Emmanuel Macron when he announced the new laws in a speech to the European Internet Governance Forum:

“I profoundly believe that we must regulate. This is the 'sine qua non' condition for a free, open and secure internet, as envisioned by its founding fathers.”

Other European nations, including Germany and the United Kingdom, are also moving rapidly in this direction.

Even if there an argument could be made that "democratic" Western governments should be entrusted with making the rules to filter fake news from the public sphere, what about more autocratic regimes, such as in China or Russia?

According to a recent Foreign Policy article, this is what fake news laws look like in China:

In 2016, Beijing criminalised manufacturing or spreading online rumors that “undermine economic and social order” in a new Cybersecurity Law. In 2017, a law called Provisions for the Administration of Internet News Information Services demanded that internet news providers reprint information published by government-acknowledged news organisations without “distorting or falsifying news information”.

By now you should be feeling a bit uncomfortable about the notion that governments have our best interests in mind when they pass such laws. They don’t!

This week, Singapore has introduced legislation along similar lines and this suggests a very strong argument against further government intervention in this arena. Articles or reports that offend against the new laws can be removed and heavy fines imposed against reporters, editors and news organisations, and this is a growing problem across Southeast Asia. Similar laws are on the books in Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Governments change and governments cannot be trusted not to abuse their legislative powers. Once they have the power to determine what we can and cannot be exposed to in terms of news media there is no way out except via the anti-democratic slippery-dip.

You can follow Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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