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Everybody’s Off The Hook - Boggled Minds Love Fake News

Projected as an assault on liberal democracies, the blow-back against fake news has landed squarely at the doors of the internet providers, web portals and social media networks that happen to host the vile transgressions. After putting up quaint resistance, typically citing free speech and such, the masters of the digital universe have found their executives sitting before various government panels explaining how they got so rich being so bad. The message from these meetings has always been the same: there’s a real language barrier between digital technology and elected governments.

off the hookThe text of a draft law on “preventing the propagation of false information (fake news) during election cycles” in France was published by daily Le Monde this past week (March 7). The proposed law, as an amendment to the 1881 Law on the Freedom of the Press, will require a response - “cooperation” - from internet and social media providers to identify the sources of “fake news” to authorities, including any financial entanglements from direct payments to advertising. Pending legislative process expected later this spring, media regulator CSA will likely be the enforcer, looking at digital sources “likely to harm the fundamental interests of the nation or to participate in a business of destabilization of its institutions, notably through the dissemination of false news” during the “electoral periods.”

None of this is a particular surprise. In January France President Emmanuel Macron telegraphed his view: "If we want to protect the liberal democracies, we must know how to be strong and have clear rules.” French public opinion is on his side, or vice versa. A survey conducted for public radio broadcaster FranceInfo and daily newspaper Le Figaro, published in January, showed 79% favoring “the idea of a law to stem the spread of false information (fake news).”

It’s a wave. The German NetzDG law came into effect in January, prescribing stinging fines for internet and social media operators slow in removing hate speech and fake news on complaints from the public. The European Commission (EC) has a panel of experts assembling a comprehensive report that might uncover a safe passage through the minefield between fake news and freedom of speech.

While most internet and social media providers held their powder after the French draft law on fake news was revealed, Twitter France was quite expressive. “We will not be the arbiter of truth,” said spokesperson Audrey Herblin-Stoop, quoted by French tech portal (March 8). "Twitter's open and real-time nature is a powerful antidote to so-called fake news,” echoing the oft-expressed view of Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey. "Entrusting this role to private companies is a short-term vision, dangerous for democracy and actively weakens the vital role of the media in our society,” she added.

Further illuminating the orphan status of the fake news issue, paraphrasing Tacitus (AD 98), publishers, digital and otherwise, are wary of any authority or outsider as the “arbiter of truth.” Under certain pressure from Dutch publishers and politicians, reported public broadcaster NOS (March 9), the EC-funded EU vs Disinfo website removed notifications that had designated the publisher’s websites as fake news. The publishers, including large Dutch media house De Persgroep, filed a lawsuit against the European Commission in February demanding removal of the notifications and restitution. The EU vs Disinfo website was created by the East Stratcom Taskforce that, in turn, was created to “identify, name and refute” Russian Federation disinformation.

While public support for doing something about fake news is clear, the search for solutions is murky. Also last week a large sample study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scholars was published in the academic journal Science on “The spread of true and false news online.” News outlets around the world pounced on the the top-line finding: fake news travels faster that real news and that has something to do with the inherent need for novelty by human brain. Suddenly, everybody is absolved of complicity.

Not so fast, wrote Poynter Institute’s Alexios Mantzarlis (March 9), who leads their International Fact Checking Network. “We need to get better. We should be drawing many small lessons about misinformation from these new studies. Instead, we are hammering our audiences with an inaccurate generalization - that fakery is rampant and undefeatable. This message will further increase distrust and disaffection in our online information ecosystem and prevent us from taking academically-sound small steps toward a shared solution.”

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