Anyone who has been reading headlines recently knows what’s up: Fake News. Whilst the idea of fake news isn’t news it certainly seems to be attracting an ever-increasing shitstorm of accusations, speculations, and memories of the cold war, where the Russians where under the bed of every child.
As with any problem, there are cries for government help. As a libertarian (yes, one of those people), I am inclined to fervently oppose any such argument on idealistic grounds.
That is not what I am here to say.
I am here to deliver a message. A message at the heart of novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451. We cannot allow our governments to decide what is truth and what is not.
It is up to We The People to decide what is true and what is false. Should we really let the government decide whether ‘climate skepticism’ has merit, or whether life begins at conception? What about really controversial issues like whether the DNC was rigged or Trump’s tax returns. To be clear, I don’t think many people are actually advocating for this exactly. But when you advocate that the government (or some entity) should strike down news articles/organizations that are incorrect, that necessarily implies that somebody must first decide whether they are incorrect in the first place.
One problem is, of course, that this hypothetical Minitrue of America (or wherever) would have the power to almost unilaterally dictate policy. So our Trump of the future makes a claim, like “The election is rigged”. Somebody writes an article in favor of the claim. All seems well until the next day Minitrue releases a statement that the claim is false and bans the media outlet from saying otherwise. It doesn’t matter whether the claim is true or not – nor does it matter whether whether you can challenge their assessment. By the time all of that is figured out the damage would already be done. It’s all fun and games when this is used against the ideas and people you don’t like, but be under no illusion fan favorites are sacrosanct.
Even if the organization is non-partisan, another problem is that it could suppress debate on controversial issues that do not have a clear answer yet like the nature of gender identity or the validity of EM drive. Leaving the consensus of this up to the State would stifle debate on issues and could very well lead us to believe what is incorrect – even if the intentions of the people in charge aren’t sinister.
The reason this is such a bad idea is the fact that if we allow our government to control the consensus of the media we so rely on, than our beliefs that depend on the media can also be controlled. Sure, while nobody wants to give the government the ability to police beliefs, that’s exactly what doing this would allow them to do.
Without Minitrue, people can write false claims. But people can also write refutations to said claims. Giving the government the ability to choose preemptively which side wins means We the People don’t get a chance to decide what is right. The government decides for us. We can’t allow that to happen; the moment we let some other party control the forums in which we debate is the moment we stop becoming a marketplace of ideas, a democracy of truth, a model which we rely on.
Furthermore, knowingly making a false claim which brings harm to someone is already a crime: Defamation. Of course extending Defamation to cover people knowingly spreading fake news wouldn’t be enough – the suits would take too long and likely never go before a judge. What people are really asking for is an organization that can unilaterally, without regard for process, strike down sources of news for being fake.
This is unacceptable, and violates our Fifth Amendment right to Due Process. if we were to create such an organization, there is no doubt it would have ‘accidents’ where ‘real’ news would be called ‘fake’. What about foreign ‘fake news’? I suppose we should ban that from getting into the country?
As you start to flesh out the idea of preventing fake news, its sounds more and more draconian due to the practicalities of it. Giving every news provider a fair trial where it would be up to the state to prove the news is false would be impractical. Trying to levy penalties on news sources outside the united states or whatever country would be impractical. Even a modest practical implementation of law implementing fake news would be a free speech disaster.
This kind of action is the hallmark of oppressive regimes we Americans send our soldiers (for better or worse) to fight against. Regulating what is seen and unseen, preventing other points of view from being heard – there is simply no way this power wouldn’t be used for wrong, even if those who wielded it had the best intentions (they don’t).
If you want to combat fake news, then don’t watch fake news. Tell your friends not to watch fake news. Write news about fake news. But don’t leave that task to the government – please. Otherwise the result we get will be one none of us will enjoy.