Fri, Jan 13, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Fake news poses new challenges to free speech in the media

The world has felt the impact of fake news on democratic institutions. Has the time come to revisit criminal libel laws in order to mitigate their influence?

By Peter Singer

About a week before the US presidential election in November last year, someone posted on Twitter that then-US presidential candidate and former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton was at the center of a pedophilia ring. The rumor spread through social media, and a right-wing talk show host named Alex Jones repeatedly stated that she was involved in child abuse and that her campaign chairman, John Podesta, took part in satanic rituals.

In a YouTube video (since removed), Jones referred to “all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped.”

The video, posted four days before the election, was watched more than 400,000 times.

E-mails released by WikiLeaks showed that Podesta sometimes dined at a Washington pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong. Apparently for that reason, the child-sex-ring accusations focused on the pizza restaurant and used the hashtag #pizzagate.

The allegations were frequently retweeted by bots — programs designed to spread certain types of messages — contributing to the impression that many people were taking “Pizzagate” seriously. The story, amazingly, was also retweeted by General Michael Flynn, who is soon to be US president-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser.

Even after Trump’s election — and despite debunking by the New York Times and the Washington Post — the story continued to spread. Comet Ping Pong was harassed by constant, abusive and often threatening phone calls. When the manager approached the police, he was told the rumors were constitutionally protected speech.

Edgar Welch, a Christian who has Bible verses tattooed on his back, was one of Jones’ listeners. On Dec. 4, he drove 560km from his home in North Carolina to Comet Ping Pong, armed with an assault rifle, a revolver and a knife. He allowed guests and staff to leave while he searched for enslaved children supposedly hidden in tunnels. He fired his rifle at least once, to open a locked door. After finding no children, he surrendered to police.

Fake news — “active misinformation” that is packaged to look as if it comes from a serious news site — is a threat to democratic institutions. There have been less absurd examples, including a fake report of a nuclear threat by Israel’s defense minister that misled his Pakistani counterpart into retweeting the report and warning Israel that Pakistan, too, is a nuclear power.

US President Barack Obama acknowledged the danger to democratic freedoms when speaking to the press in Germany shortly after the US election. Whether or not fake news cost Clinton the presidency, it plainly could cause a candidate to lose an election and upset international relations. It is also contrary to one of the fundamental premises on which democracy rests: that voters can make informed choices between contending candidates.

The First Amendment to the US constitution states that “Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...”

By 1919, the US Supreme Court’s interpretation of those words had led to the doctrine that Congress could prohibit speech only if it posed “a clear and present danger” of serious harm.

That position was further refined in what is perhaps the greatest defense of freedom of speech by a US judge: Louis Brandeis’ concurring opinion in the 1927 case of Whitney v California.

This story has been viewed 3306 times.

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