What Even Is Fake News?

Trump’s favourite buzzword could be the start of a new battle for free speech

8 April 2018

The American Dialect Society made its 2017 word of the year, ‘fake news.’ This follows in the steps of Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary, who made ‘fake news’ their 2016 word of the year. But between 2016 and 2017, a lot has changed.

As a word, ‘fake news’ has taken on several different meanings and connotations. What began as the favoured label for describing clickbait and biased media has slowly become a pejorative for any news a person may dislike.

The aforementioned, American Dialect Society, defines ‘fake news’ as being both ‘disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news’ and ‘actual news that is claimed to be untrue.’

How these two definitions can exist for the same word puzzles me. They seemingly contradict each other, and their meanings are reliant not only the context of a conversation but who is speaking.

For some, an article or website being labelled ‘fake news’ could actually make it seem more trustworthy, as a recent Facebook failure has shown.

French President, Emmanuel Macron, is one of the first world leaders to openly lead a charge against ‘fake news,’ attempting to make the practice illegal, at least during election campaigns.

This would put in jeopardy websites, publications, and social media accounts who operate solely to spread disinformation and heavily biased material. The problem with this, however, as I’m sure you’ve already picked up on, is the question of who gets to decide what news is fake. 

As news and opinion increasingly become less discernible, is a ban on disinformation really just a limit on free speech? ‘Fake news’ is an incredibly subjective term that certainly means different things to different people.

Put in the hands of someone like Donald Trump, a ban on ‘fake news’ could mean the elimination of any media outlet he simply disagrees with. By removing competition, it could also mean that news organisations biased in his favour end up gaining a stronger platform to trumpet his agenda.

Macron stated he would enforce his ban through empowered judges and an empowered CSA—the French equivalent of the FCC.  They would be able to remove internet content deemed false and in some cases, block the websites where that content comes from.

Is anyone OK with giving their government this much power?

This was all in the pursuit of ‘protecting liberal democracies’ such as France, which Macron added as needing ‘strong legislation’ to combat against ‘propaganda.’

Legislation in this vein is an affront to liberal democracies.

A free media is one of the first steps to ensuring a free society. I simply can’t see a situation where this kind of power exists and isn’t abused or misused. It could certainly be used to silence publications who hold breaking information about a political scandal or case of corruption.

The mere existence of such governmental power could be enough to stop people from speaking up, in fear that their website or social media account may be taken down.

For millions of people, nowadays, the internet is their livelihood.

If this kind of legislation starts finding its way into the parliament or congress of more countries, then we are all in deep trouble—especially Americans living under Trump.

Biased media and disinformation isn’t necessarily a problem for the government to fix, even if it’s only because they might make things worse. Although it isn’t a perfect comparison, look at what’s currently happening with YouTube and its creators’ struggle with demonetised content, where any video tackling a controversial topic may have its advertising removed.

The subjectivity of ‘fake news’ makes me feel the same way about this as I do on the topic of hate speech. They’re both bad, but really, it depends on who’s doing the defining and whether they want to stifle the ability to express controversial opinions. 

At what point does a biased article become ‘fake news’? To what extent does the battle against disinformation justify the potential stifling of free speech? What does this mean for websites like The Onion? Is creative and professional satire dead in a world where ‘fake news’ is shut down?

The slippery slope is indeed steep, so let’s not indulge in it just yet. Legitimately fake news is bad; however, the removal of ‘disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news’ could also mean the removal of ‘actual news that is claimed to be untrue.’

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