Glenn Greenwald Warns About Use Of Claims Of Fake News To Justify Censorship

Both Glenn Greenwald and I have written many times in the past year about the danger of increased censorship which has arisen from the anti-Russia hysteria being spread by many establishment Democrats, along with portions of the media including MSNBC and The Washington Post. Greenwald has written on this topic again today. In the United States this has been seen with calls for suppressing allegedly fake news critical of them by both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Both Greenwald and myself have also noted the increase in censorship of political views on Facebook.  Today Greenwald discussed two countries where governments are actually looking at censorship of the internet based upon claims of fake news, Brazil and France.

Greenwald discussed the details in Brazil and France in great detail and it would be best to read his full article. After this description he discussed the issue in general, which is important as it affects response to the Russia story here. Greenwald wrote:

THOUGH PRESENTED AS modern necessities to combat new, contemporaneous problems, both countries’ proposals have all the defining attributes — and all the classic pitfalls and severe dangers — of standard state censorship efforts. To begin with, the fact that these censorship powers are confined to election time makes it more menacing, not less: Having a population choose its leaders is exactly when free expression is most vital, and when the dangers of abuse of censorship powers wielded by state officials are most acute and obvious.

Worse, these new censorship proposals are centrally based on a newly concocted term that, from the start, never had any clear or consistent definition. In the wake of Donald Trump’s unexpected 2016 victory, U.S. media outlets produced a tidal wave of reports warning of the damage and pervasiveness of “fake news.” Seemingly overnight, every media outlet and commentator was casually using the term as though its meaning were clear and indisputable.

Yet, as many have long been warning, few people, if any, ever bothered to define what the term actually means. As a result, it’s incredibly vague, shifting, and devoid of consistent meaning. Do any news articles that contain false, significant assertions qualify? Is there some intent requirement, and if so, what is it and how is determined (does recklessness qualify)? Can large mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post, Le Monde, and Globo be guilty of publishing “fake news” and thus subject to this censorship, or is it — as one expects — reserved only for small, independent blogs and outlets that lack a powerful corporate presence?

Ill-defined terms that become popularized in political discourse are, by definition, terms of propaganda rather than reliable, meaningful indicators of problems. And invariably, they wreak all kinds of predictable havoc and inevitably give rise to abuses of power. More than anything else, such terms — which, by design, mean whatever the powerful groups wielding them want them to mean — so often produce arbitrary censorship in the name of combatting them. Just consider two similarly ill-defined but popular propagandistic terms — “terrorism” and “hate speech” — which have been appropriated by governments all over the world to justify the most extreme, repressive powers.

The last decade has seen multiple countries on every continent — including the world’s most repressive regimes — obliterate basic civil liberties in the name of stopping “terrorism,” by which they mean little other than “those who oppose our regime.” And then there’s “hate speech,” which can sometimes be used to silence Nazis or overt racists, but also can be and often is used to silence a wide range of left-wing views, from war opposition to advocacy of Palestinian rights. State censorship is always dangerous, but the danger is exponentially magnified when the censorship targets (terrorism, hate speech, fake news) lack clear definition…

If none of those points convinces you to oppose, or at least be seriously concerned about, efforts to control the internet in the name of “fake news,” simply apply the lessons of Donald Trump to this debate. For years during the war on terror, civil libertarians tried to generate opposition to vast, unchecked executive power — due process-free detentions, secret wars, targeting one’s own citizens for assassination with no charges — by warning that although one may trust these powers in the hands of leaders that one likes (George W. Bush or Barack Obama), at some point a president you distrust will enter the Oval Office, and by then, it will be too late to prevent him from exercising those powers.

As Greenwald noted, fake news is an incredibly vague word. Even if we find news that most would agree is fake, there is no evidence that it is harmful. As I described last week, a study showed that fake news is unlikely to have impacted the election result. The study found that most people who followed links to fake news are  “voracious consumers of hard news,” receiving news from multiple sources, and are less likely to be fooled by fake stories. In addition, most were “intense partisans,” making them unlikely to change their views based upon an occasional story with fake news. Fake news does not represent a meaningful threat, and should not be used as justification for censorship.

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