With several countries introducing or proposing to introduce laws against fake news, many social activists fear that such laws could be misused to eventually impose censorship and curtail free speech.
What is fake news?
In the media, fake news today is regarded as untrue information with the goal of damaging the reputation or falsifying the circumstances regarding a person or entity.
The epidemic of fake news
Fake news has always been a part of society, especially when it comes to politics. However, the problem with fake news right now is that social media allows such news to travel fast and leave a deep impact. For instance, wrong information about a politician having cheated on his spouse could spread like wildfire over the internet in less than 24 hours. If it happens right before an election, this could effectively reduce his chances of winning.
A situation occurred in France where several media outlets spread fake reports about President Emmanuel Macron having multiple offshore bank accounts. This angered Macron so much that he is crusading the proposal to pass a strong anti-fake news law in the country. And though he has garnered enough support for this, MPs are still split over the matter and the media has been vehemently opposing it.
U.S. President Donald Trump has also said several times that certain media outlets were biased against him and carrying out fake news campaigns to destroy his image among the public. And in some situations, the news channels have even apologized for spreading rumors about Trump and his administration. A case in point being ABC News’ apology for a report that accused Trump’s former campaign manager of manslaughter.
However, the fact remains that such apologies come just a few at a time. And for the most part, the media who spread lies never apologize. And this is why countries across the world are pushing ahead with strong anti-fake news laws. But there is a worry among rights activists that such laws will eventually be used to curb free speech and restrict the media from reporting incidents which the governments wish to keep under cover.
The problem with drafting an effective law
A huge problem with fake news is that it is difficult to judge whether the journalist intentionally reported the news knowing it was fake or if they spread it thinking the news was true. Only in the first scenario could the journalist actually be accused of unethical behavior, while the latter is simply a case of incorrect reporting, which happens in media all the time.
The issue recently blew up in India where the government had passed a stringent law against fake news. But strong media pushback against the law forced the government to reconsider their position. As a result, the law was repealed just 24 hours after being passed.
“Any journalist who had a complaint registered against her would automatically have had their accreditation suspended, till a regulating agency decided on the matter. Since anyone can file a complaint, this, it was rightly feared, would open the route for misuse. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. It was a wrong idea to allow punitive action against a journalist without having first proven that he or she had deliberately and intentionally spread news which they knew to be false,” a Times of India article writes about how the fake news law could have led to abuse of journalists.
The developments in India merely underline a simple truth – it is very difficult to create a law against fake news without risking the careers and lives of innocent journalists. As such, the governments, journalists, and public have to work together to come up with a solution that will address the problem of fake news without creating any chance of censorship or putting members of the media at risk.