Brazil and France have had enough with so-called “fake news” and are planning a major crackdown during this year’s election. Both countries are considering laws which will allow judges or police to shut down websites or social media accounts they deem are interfering in the electoral process. It’s their way of “protecting the sanctity of democracy,” or some such claim.
French President Emmanuel Macron was first to make the vow in early January, during an address to the press. He told reporters at the time the proposal was outstanding because it will increase transparency, “regarding sponsored content to make public the identity of sponsors and of those who control them, but also limits on the amounts that can be used to sponsor this content.” He swears the legal system needs to be used to block propaganda accounts on social media from destroying democracy by spreading “lies invented to tarnish political officials, personalities, public figures, journalists.”
Brazil joined in the fun days later, with the Federal Police tweeting about the creation of a task force to make sure their country was free of fake news. Here’s what FP’s Investigation and Fight against Organized Crime Director Eugênio Ricas told R7 TV about the importance of the task force and new rules on the issue, via Google Translate:
For two things: first establish how far people can go. Both in the creation of news, by chance false, as in the dissemination. And then we talk about typing. What is a crime and what is not a crime. Because today there is legal uncertainty about it. And in a second moment already created these criminal types establishing what is crime which is not a crime to give conditions to the police action. Because they are not crimes that are easy to find. We know of the possibility of using providers in other countries, the dissemination of news is very fast. This viraliza with very great speed. So it’s a complicated calculation. One of the objectives of this law would be to provide tools for the police to act.
It’s really not surprising to see Brazil get involved in the fight against free speech because their government once asked Google to remove almost 20K items from each product or service, and over 10K by last June. The U.S. had over 18K requests and Russia over 16K in the same time period last year. France’s involvement is also not 100% surprising because Macron faced a false claim he had an offshore account during last year’s election.
It doesn’t justify Macron’s proposal, because France’s constitution does guarantee freedom of the press, but it adds a little perspective to Macron’s desire.
Both countries have been roundly criticized for their pushes to ban fake news. French Conservative Senator Bruno Retailleau told Reuters the idea was authoritarian, and French Twitter users created a hashtag to parody Macron. Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept_ lambasted both countries, asking what might happen if the “wrong person,” got in power in either France or Brazil. It probably won’t matter in either Brazil or France, as the laws will more than likely pass, but it’s still something those in power need to consider when considering increasing security at liberty’s expense.
It’s extremely important the United States avoid similar laws. There’s already been a push from conservatives and liberals to increase regulations on Facebook and Twitter due to “fake news,” and whatever Russia did or didn’t do during the 2016 election. President Donald Trump has talked about strengthening libel laws to prevent news outlets from publishing things he doesn’t like. Security at the expense of freedom, or, at least, serenity now.
Facebook and Twitter are doing what they can to root out fake accounts. They still have a lot of work to do, and there’s only so much massive corporations can do to weed out fraud, no matter what algorithm they might create to stamp out suspect news. Those algorithms can be taken advantage of by workers or people angry when someone publishes something they don’t like.
But here’s the thing: individuals are stepping up to combat real fake news. A friend of mine, Felicia Cravens, has created something called Unfakery where she trawls the web looking for bogus information which ends up being unwittingly pushed around by either conservatives or liberals as actual news. Her reason for Unfakery is simple: people need to be educated because there are trolls out there profiting off of people’s confirmation bias.
“I figured if I could easily spot fakes, surely everyone else could, but I underestimated how attractive bias confirmation is,” Cravens told me during an interview. “I saw a lot of people refusing to take debunker sites’ word when they exposed fakes, and I realized that would happen no matter how many debunker sites you created. So I thought about a way to teach people to figure fakery out for themselves, and worked up a list of ‘tells’.”
She also shares my opinion of the worries about governmental intervention causing more problems saying, “by the time enough people take the threat seriously, the clamor for a government solution will be overwhelming. And I think that’s the worst option.”
Cravens is right, and it’s something politicians, pundits, advocates, and journalists really need to consider before writing some screed on why government is the ‘solution’ because 99.9% of the time, it’s not. Security in exchange of freedom isn’t worth it, despite how attractive it might be.