No one knows how to handle "fake news." Rather than step back and see what light-touch approaches might work, governments all over the world are rushing forward with bad ideas that harm speech and threaten journalism. No one seems to be immune to the "do something" infection and everything proposed is just another way to give governments more direct control of social media platforms and news outlets.
In Italy, the government control of speech under the guide of "fake news" deterrence is being done in the worst way possible. It's not being handed to a regulatory body with instructions to sort of keep an eye on things. Instead, as Poynter reports, it's rolling out as a heckler's veto backed by armed officers.
In an effort to address fake news ahead of this year's elections, the Italian government has created an online portal where people can report hoaxes.
The portal, which Interior Minister Marco Minniti announced Thursday, prompts users to supply their email address, a link to the misinformation they're reporting and any social networks they found it on.
Then the requests are ferried to authorities at the Polizia Postale, a unit of the state police that investigates cyber crime, who will fact-check them and — if laws were broken — pursue legal action. In cases where no laws were broken, the service will still draw upon official sources to deny false or misleading information.
It seems as though this could be handled without government interference -- especially not the sort that might result in armed officers showing up at a press agency's HQ, demanding rebuttals, deletions, or arrests of fake news offenders. The government's anti-fake news effort even gives the government a platform for "more speech," which is all speech like this really needs to be greeted with.
Getting facts wrong should be a black eye (not literally!) for journalists, rather than a criminal offense. Fake news spread maliciously should be greeted with little more than fact checking and debunking. This can -- and should -- be handled by journalists and citizens. Giving the government a platform for debunking caters to its innate desire to control the narrative in questionable situations. The government is certainly welcome to present its own side and deliver facts that rebut claims made by others. But it doesn't need legislation to do this and it certainly does not need to bring law enforcement into the mix.
Adding to the host of problems is the fact that "fake news" hasn't been clearly defined by the government. True, the term resists strict definition, but the lack of discernible contours means the government can simply target any speech it doesn't like and force the issue by handing it over to the police force. The opening of an online portal invites further abuse by citizens who prefer shouting down people with opposing views, rather than engaging in constructive discussions.
Whenever the police is given the task of dealing with the truth and falsehood of news and political content, yes, those who care about democracy should be worried — not feel protected,” [journalist Fabio] Chiusi said. “Citizens in healthy democracies don’t need to be protected from falsehood of this sort: they should be able to freely exercise their judgment, with no interference from state authorities — especially the police.”
Arianna Ciccone, founder of the International Journalism Festival, agreed. She told Poynter in an email that the initiative — which Chiusi said doesn’t offer a counter-measure for those who might be falsely accused — opens up the possibility of future infringements of free speech by the government, as well as a potential cooling effect on the press.
In short: If journalists are too afraid that making a mistake will result in legal intervention, what will go uncovered?
Reporters will not only shy away from publishing articles while details are still emerging, but will also be deterred from publishing anything the government might disagree with. The term "fake news" has become shorthand for news anyone disagrees with, whether or not the contents are untrue. This gives the Italian government free rein to harass news outlets it doesn't like. Even if journalists are ultimately cleared of criminal charges, they'll be forced to spend time and money defending themselves and the outlets they work for will likely face future harassment from authorities. Once you're on law enforcement's radar, you're there forever. It's the newsroom equivalent of inner city life, where merely existing in a "high crime" area exposes you to constant, unprovoked "interactions" with law enforcement.
Normally, I'd say something like "the legislation's aim is noble," but in the case of governments v. fake news, that can't even be said. The term eludes strict definition which is the sort of thing you definitely need if you're going to regulate speech. Providing a direct pipeline to police mobilization is perhaps the worst "solution" presented so far. And as the anti-fake news effort picks up steam, the ripple effect will move beyond harassed journalists to every Italian citizen who's "liked" or retweeted social media posts deemed "fake news" by a law enforcement entity.