Fake News

Just What America Needs: A Government Truth Squad

A California lawmaker wants to make it illegal to publish or share a "false or deceptive statement" meant to influence voters.


If there's one thing this country needs, it's a Ministry of Truth. Just ask California lawmakers.

A lot of fake news has been floating around in the ether during the past few months, as anyone who has read the mainstream press can attest. Some of the stuff is obviously fictional, such as the story reporting that the pope endorsed Donald Trump for president. That was plainly absurd; everybody knows Francis was a Jim Gilmore man all the way. But sometimes it's a little harder to tell. When the satirical news magazine The Onion reports "Military Aides Try To Cheer Up Kim Jong-Un After Failed Missile Launch By Putting On Surprise Execution," you have to wonder. Maybe it's worth Googling, just to be sure.

Moreover, a certain segment of the public is satire-impaired. This has led to the creation of sites such as literallyunbelievable.org and listicles such as "25 People Who Don't Realize The Onion Isn't A Real News Source," which post social-media reactions from people like Facebook user "T." When The Onion reported, "New Sony Nose Buds Allow Users to Blast Different Smells Into Nostrils," T responded: "Dumbest [expletive] I ever read. Even if they worked who wants to go around with what looks like ear buds in your nose, u would look like a complete idiot." Yes, u would.

Not every false thing on the internet is satire, however, and some false stories can do real harm. Example: Pizzagate, in which a family-run Washington pizzeria was accused of running a child-sex ring connected to Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chairman, John Podesta. The story became a nightmare for the owners of the pizzaria, who suffered harassment and death threats for months.

Conspiracy-monger Alex Jones has since apologized for his role in spreading the story, but that didn't keep protesters from showing up in D.C. a day later to demand that someone investigate the story anyhow. The Truth Is Out There.

Episodes such as that are rare, but false political claims on the internet are ubiquitous, and Serious People consider this a Very Bad Thing. Now a lawmaker in California has determined to do something about it. Assembly member Ed Chau has introduced legislation that—you'd better sit down for this part—would render it illegal to knowingly "make, publish or circulate on an Internet Web site" a "false or deceptive statement" meant to influence the vote on any issue or candidate.

Let the government punish people for false statements? What a great idea! That has worked out just splendidly for much of human history, has it not?

Note that the measure would outlaw not only the making of false statements, but also the publishing and circulation of them—which presumably means that if you share a false post on Facebook or retweet a link to a false story, then California's speech police could come after you, too. (It's not even clear that you would have to know the story is false: the bill's text makes it illegal "to knowingly … make, publish or circulate" a false story, not "to circulate a story while knowing it to be false.")

Note also that the statement doesn't even have to be false, which can be hard enough to prove. (E.g., "Congressman Jones is an extremist.") You can get crosswise with the law for statements that are merely "deceptive." Hmmm. Is it deceptive to write, "Jones' proposal does little to help the poor"? Do we need a government definition of "little" to settle the matter? Probably. And probably one for "help" and "poor," too.

To be fair, having the government dictate what qualifies as true in politics makes a certain amount of sense from a Platonic standpoint. Doctors are trained to heal—but as Socrates points out in the Republic, the result of such training is that nobody can poison someone as skillfully as a doctor can. By a similar process of reasoning, perhaps Chau decided the job of ferreting out the political truth should be filled by a bunch of congenital liars.

You can imagine how all this might work in practice. Every time some poor sap said something an elected official didn't like, the official would sic the Wahrheitspolizei of the Minitrue on him until campaign season was over or the sun went supernova, whichever came second.

People who come up with bright ideas like this always seem to think they'll be the ones enforcing the law. They seem incapable of imagining a world in which their political enemies win elections and gain control over the powers they create for themselves. Then they are horrified to discover what they unleashed.

Maybe someday we will read the headline, "Politician Declines to Expand Government Power, Lest New Authority Fall Into the Wrong Hands." But then who would ever believe it?

This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.