Misinformation has been present throughout history, albeit appearing under different guises: spam, false reports, and others. However, beginning with US President Donald Trump’s Twitter rants that labeled media outlets criticizing his first year in office as “fake news”, the term has circulated rapidly; it was even named as one of Collins Dictionary’s Words of the Year in 2017. A Wikipedia search will tell you that fake news is defined as a type of propaganda that consists of misinformation and hoaxes that propagate through social and mainstream media. A more detailed view shows that it encompasses deliberately false news, unreliable information, and clickbait headlines. The sudden explosion of fake news is largely due to the reach and speed of information sharing on social media platforms and online sources. This exponential spread can create serious problems for a country, most significantly the polarization of the population, loss of trust in media, and compromise in the ability for society to have fact-based and rational discussions. For example, many argue that the widespread fake news propagated by Russian sources during the 2016 US presidential elections played a role in President Trump’s victory. Also, India’s plague of fake news about cyclones, public health, and child abuse has led to riots and violence.
The spread of fake news prompted some countries to implement regulations. India announced a proposal for legislation to control fake news on April 2 and immediately withdrew it after less than 24 hours due to widespread public dissent. Malaysia became the first to pass an anti-fake news law this April, specifying a punishment of up to six years in prison and a maximum fine of 500,000 RM (136 million KRW). Germany passed laws last year to require large social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to remove fake news inciting hate, while French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to grant judges temporary powers to remove or block specific content deemed to be fake during sensitive election periods. However, is government regulation really the solution we need?
My answer is yes and (mostly) no. The problem of fake news is by no means simple and the solutions are just as nuanced. There are some areas that require a response from government leaders, but it must be proportionate and should respect the right to free speech. The government should encourage accurate reporting and professional journalism. The people need a clear and unbiased view of what is happening in the country in order to contribute to societal development. Also, the government could focus on incentivizing media companies to better monitor fake news on their platforms instead of making them responsible for deleting content that is deemed fake. For example, it could provide tax incentives or more government-supported growth opportunities. One of the long-term solutions is the proper education of its citizens. Education programs for news literacy should be developed so that people can learn how to fact-check what they read and thus avoid susceptibility to fake news.
But this is where the government should draw the line. Laws concerning the punishment of fake news proponents could easily become a weapon to silence political opponents. I agree that passing strict laws is a more rapid response that could deter fake news, but the term itself is ambiguous. How is the criminality of specific content decided? More importantly, who determines these technicalities and their corresponding punishments? Time and again, we have seen dictatorships and authoritarian governments respond to legitimate journalists’ criticisms and government opposition with imprisonment under the premise of fake news reporting. The Committee to Protect Journalists found that 262 journalists were imprisoned around the world in 2017 — the highest number in history. Legislations give too much power to a single group of people with agendas and political bias, which could lead to violations of the people’s right to information and freedom of expression. Third-party committees could be established to have a more unbiased way of ruling out punishments, but loyalties can be bought and the same problems can arise over time.
The phenomenon of fake news in recent years has progressed at an alarming rate, and it’s high time the governments of the world form an appropriate response to this new threat — one that does not violate our basic human rights.