'Fake News' Is a Really Dangerous Excuse for Censorship

The supposed plague of misleading and harmful information on the internet is nothing new, nor is governments' desire to muzzle anybody who says inconvenient things.


You know what's not fake news? It's that politicians scream about the alleged dangers of "fake news" to justify efforts to censor speech that rubs them the wrong way. As Singapore's rulers join a growing list of their peers in America and around the world promising to punish "false statements of fact," it's important to remember that the supposed plague of misleading and harmful information on the internet is nothing new, nor is governments' desire to muzzle anybody who says inconvenient things.

Without a doubt, there's bullshit on the Internet. Some of it results from sloppy fact-checking, and some is deliberate publication of untrue information and propaganda. But this isn't a peculiar quality of online publishing—it's an inevitable product of any publishing platform.

People want to reach the public with their messages, and they use the tools available to them.

Politicians like that power when it's targeted at their enemies, but they resent it when they're on the receiving end.

We've Been Here (Long) Before

"There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years before 1798," President John Adams complained of his treatment by opposition newspapers at a time when news—fake or real—was printed by hand.

Adams's Federalist allies in Congress responded to the president's concerns about fake news with legal restrictions on "any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government." Unsurprisingly, the first person charged under the law was an opposition lawmaker—Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont—who accused President Adams of "an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp."

Ironically, the then-president's own cousin, Samuel Adams, had been an especially effective propagandist and publisher of arguably misleading information in the years leading up to the American Revolution. But that was the sort of fake news to which John Adams had no objection.

Censorship in Singapore

Striking a note that John Adams and company would have recognized, Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times suggests that speech controls are necessary because "an erosion of trust in governments and institutions has threatened the very foundations of democracy worldwide" and the "spread of fake news on new media have deepened this crisis."

Presenting the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill for debate, Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said it was "an attempt to deal with one part of the problem. The serious problems arising from falsehoods spread through new media. And to try and help support the infrastructure of fact and promote honest speech in public discourse."

Shanmugam's party has held power continuously since 1959, largely by suing into bankruptcy any opposition figures who dare to utter speech critical of the regime.

His position is unlikely to become less secure now that government ministers have the unilateral power, "to prevent the communications of false statements of fact in Singapore" by requiring people to change or recant what they've published under threat of fines and imprisonment. The law—passed May 8—is intended to apply to information published not just inside the country but also elsewhere, a response to the government's frustration with the international reach of the Internet.

That Singapore follows in the wake of Malaysia, another managed sort-of-democracy, is no surprise. That country last year banned the publication of "news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false" in a move transparently aimed at the opposition.

But traditional liberal democracies with supposedly firmer civil liberties protections also feel the allure of speech controls.

Information Fallacieuse and British Spies

Channeling his own internal John Adams, France's President Emmanuel Macron demanded government action against "propaganda articulated by thousands of social media accounts." He went on to sniff, "If we want to protect liberal democracies, we must be strong and have clear rules."

France's lawmakers obliged their president with a law allowing government officials to order the removal of online articles deemed to be false.

They then erupted in outrage when Twitter determined that the French government's own online efforts couldn't be brought into compliance with the law and so rejected a voter registration campaign.

Macron continues to pressure online platforms to eliminate information he doesn't like, meeting just days ago with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May also finds too much information published online to be inconvenient. She has accused Russia of "weaponizing information" and claims that Internet "companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content."

Without bothering with legislation, the British government is creating a "fake news" rapid response unit that is tasked with monitoring social media and going after stories officials claim are false. The government also proposes to hold online publishers liable for "inciting violence and violent content, encouraging suicide, disinformation, cyber bullying and children accessing inappropriate material."

"The era of self-regulation for online companies is over," Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright bluntly claims. "Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough."

Censors plan, yet again, to suppress speech through involuntary means when people won't muzzle themselves? What a shock.

Not that modern American politicians are immune to such temptations…

Speech Suppression Efforts at Home

Luckily the First Amendment, for now, poses a barrier to Singapore/Malaysia/France/UK-style suppression of disapproved speech in the U.S. But modern American politicians are far from immune to such temptations.

President Donald Trump famously denounces every inconvenient news story and critical report as "fake news." His use of the term is so frequent that it was named word of the year for 2017 by the American Dialect Society.

Trump's Democratic opponents may not agree that Trump should occupy the White House, but they share his resentment that online speech is out of (their) control.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) frets that Russia uses social media "to sow conflict and discontent all over this country" and threatens government intervention. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) openly envies the UK's regulation of online media and says the U.S. should probably follow suit.

Last month, members of Congress from both parties alternately pushed extremism and political bias as reasons for government regulation of online speech.

Not that the rationale for regulating speech matters. The fakest news of all is the claim that politicians respect our liberty, including our free speech rights. Whatever excuse they raise, government officials will always find an excuse to try to suppress criticism and ideas they find uncomfortable. It's our right to speak out anyway.

NEXT: The New Green Serfdom

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  1. “promising to punish “false statements of fact,””
    If you like your doctor, you can keep him. Period.
    If you like your health plan, you can keep it. Period.
    Trump is guilty, no matter what the report on the facts says. (Period?)

    1. I take it that all the lies the POTUS utters are somehow justifiable?

      1. That’s what you read into his comment? Finish school.

        1. Alternative facts are an excellent political tool, and there is nothing wrong with them at all when they’re used by our national leader. That being said, the internet mayhem coming from the rabble has to stop, and if it doesn’t, then it has to be stopped. There is precedent. See the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case at:


      2. IOKIYAR.

        Do you not know libertarianism?

    2. “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
      “I am not a crook.”
      Trivial riddle: How do you know a politician is lying?

      1. How do you know a politician is lying?
        His lips are moving.

        Did that joke exist before GHW Bush’s 1988 campaign? Anyone who could do simple arithmetic should have known that “Read my lips: no new taxes.” was a lie, but the only major news media commentary on it was reporting on how many people were buying that as compared to the BS from Dukakis.

  2. “Without a doubt, there’s bullshit on the Internet. Some of it results from sloppy fact-checking, and some is deliberate publication of untrue information and propaganda.”

    Media being propagandists. That’s a connection you don’t hear enough.

  3. […] ‘Fake News’ Is a Really Dangerous Excuse for Censorship  Reason […]

  4. >>>justify efforts to censor speech that rubs them the wrong way

    dear Devin Nunes et al. …

  5. The fakest news of all is the claim that politicians respect our liberty, including our free speech rights.

    If you want to punish someone for speech, how about repercussions for reciting an oath of office you don’t intend to keep. Let’s agree to vote them out.

    1. Or make the punishment equivalent to what breaking an ‘oath of office’ is: treason. You should have zero rights if you want to become a bureaucrat of any sort, even an elected one; those found guilty should simply be hung by the neck until dead.

  6. The supposed plague of misleading and harmful information on the internet is nothing new, nor is governments’ desire to muzzle anybody who says inconvenient things.

    The desire of governments, special interests and wealthy or powerful people to muzzle inconvenient speech probably dates back to the rise of modern humans, so that’s very old.

    The internet plague is new if one defines the misleading and harmful content as new with the last 10 years or so. The threat of this plague is grave and urgent. It drives a powerful radical political movement that is anti-democratic, anti-government and highly authoritarian. In recent years, that movement has succeeded in taking control of the GOP. The threat should not be downplayed. Powerful propaganda is a democracy and personal freedom killer. History is clear on that point. That old fight between authoritarianism vs democracy and personal freedom is exactly what is playing out right now in American politics.

    Not that the rationale for regulating speech matters. The fakest news of all is the claim that politicians respect our liberty, including our free speech rights.

    The rationale does matter and it matters a lot. There can be such a thing as a politician who wants to limit misleading and harmful speech who feels that way while still respecting liberty, including free speech. The insurmountable problem is that no mind, court or political, religious or economic ideology or movement has ever solved is how to limit misleading and harmful speech without enabling the rise of demagogues such as tyrants, oligarchs and kleptocrats. As soon as speech limits are in place to try to block misleading and harmful speech, demagogues try to use it to oppress political opposition and personal freedoms. This problem is ancient. Both Plato and Aristotle aware deeply concerned about how fragile democracy was in the face of a demagogue using misleading and harmful speech in his/her run at power. The US supreme court gave up on even thinking about this decades ago.

    To make it clear, misleading and harmful speech can and sometimes does bring a democracy to its knees and lead to tyranny. A tyrant wannabe is trying that right now in America. If no one can devise a way to limit misleading and harmful speech by law without empowering tyrants, then the only remaining ways to try to raise a barrier are all non-legal. A major barrier to building non-legal means to blunt the power of demagogues, crooks and liars when making their run at power is human cognitive biology and social behavior. Like it or not, the human mind is susceptible to propaganda and irrational appeals to negative emotions, especially fear, anger, hate, bigotry, intolerance and distrust. That is a very difficult thing to deal with. To a large extent, that is why no one has ever figured a way to solve this weakness of democracy and freedom in the face of an onslaught of misleading and harmful speech.

    1. That old fight between authoritarianism vs democracy and personal freedom is exactly what is playing out right now in American politics.

      And who exactly in politics is fighting for democracy and personal freedom? What I see is two squads of authoritarians playing fixed scrimmage games for personal profit.

      1. word.

    2. “That old fight between authoritarianism vs democracy and personal freedom is exactly what is playing out right now in American politics.”

      You do not understand that the biggest advocates of democracy are often the most authoritarian people around.

      “The problem is that democracy is not freedom. Democracy is simply majoritarianism, which is inherently incompatible with real freedom. Our founding fathers clearly understood this, as evidenced not only by our republican constitutional system, but also by their writings in the Federalist Papers and elsewhere.”
      Ron Paul

      1. True, but the purpose of democracy is still based on the idea that we shouldn’t trust government, we should trust the people.

        Most advocates for democracy are screaming about fake news because it is “eroding our trust in government.”

        This is the most easy way to spot an authoritarian that subconsciously understands that democracy is fatally flawed.

    3. The insurmountable problem is that no mind, court or political, religious or economic ideology or movement has ever solved is how to limit misleading and harmful speech without enabling the rise of demagogues such as tyrants, oligarchs and kleptocrats.

      Fortunately, that is mistaken. The problem was solved, and the solution worked for many decades, if not centuries. Then, after the invention of the internet, the old solution was cast aside, and replaced with . . . nothing.

      The abandoned solution that worked was private editing, coupled with state imposed limits on libel, but enforced not by the state, but by civil actions and civil penalties against publishers. That combination of factors requires publishers to read everything before they publish it, out of their own self-interest. It was a solution arrived at by trial and error over centuries, and largely perfected by the dawn of the 20th century.

      We now know by experience that doing that results not only in less libel, but also results in far less of the other stuff that troubles the internet—fake news, scurrilous personal attacks, weaponized speech wielded by what amount to internet gangs, school bullying, copyright violations—all the stuff that is now generating widespread pressure for government censorship.

      Government censorship is the worst possible outcome, and must be rejected. But if nothing changes, pressure to fix the problems will grow, as more and more people conclude that if free speech delivers results this bad, they want no part of it. As anyone can see by reading commentary on the internet, government censorship is the solution most people reflexively reach for. In a democracy, the views of the majority can be kept at bay only temporarily. Eventually they prevail. So this problem is an urgent one.

      Amazingly (this so seldom happens), the solution is easy to achieve, costs nothing, and can fix the problem quickly. It just involves knowing what caused the problem, and understanding that the internet is not the cause.

      What caused the problem was an act of Congress, purporting to accommodate the internet. It was called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 eliminated libel risk—as a practical matter—for internet publishers. That enabled them to publish everything, without reading any of it first, which they proceeded to do.

      When you publish without reading, that means every libel, every fraud, every scurrilous personal attack on a private person, every copyright violation, and every fake news story gets published—with little or no effort to clean up after the fact. It also means that competition among publishers on the basis of quality is ruled out. You can’t compete on the basis of the quality of what you publish if you never read it before you publish.

      So how to fix the problem? Repeal Section 230. That’s all it will take. Internet publishing will thereafter be conducted on the same basis that long governed news publishing and book publishing—and which still governs ink-on-paper publishers to this day. We already know what result to expect. When reading before publishing was the rule, publishing was generally enjoyed and admired as an ornament of civilization. To get that back, on the internet, Repeal Section 230. That’s all it will take.

  7. Bullshit on the internet has been around as long as the internet has, yes. But as far as mainstream news publications are concerned, there most certainly IS a recent and worsening problem of inaccuracy and dishonesty. Yes, mainstream newspapers and magazines always had a point of view and axes to grind, but, believe it or not, for the most part they did hold journalists to standards for being able to back up what they wrote with sources and evidence, and there were consequences for journalists who got caught violating those standards. It is simply not true that it’s always been like this, or that very low journalistic standards in major newspapers are “inevitable”.

    As far as our politicians not giving a shit about our rights—yes, that’s correct.

    1. re: “for the most part they did hold journalists to standards”

      I think your view of the history of mainstream journalistic ethics is … Well, to call it rosy-colored would be mild. Look up the origins of the phrase “yellow journalism” – and then keep in mind that the phrase described something old even then.

      There was a brief “golden age” of journalism sourcing – but for the most part, those standards were honored in the breach. And that “golden age” was very brief by any historical standards. It died with the rise of the Columbia School of Journalism’s attack on the very concept of objectivity.

      1. Just look at the New York times during world war 2 as a glaring example.

  8. Censorship can’t be all that bad.
    After all, Joseph Goebbels, Stalin, Twitter, and FaceBook censor speech they don’t like.
    So what’s the problem?

  9. Here’s some real news. The NYT still gets some things right. (Yes it’s in opinion but the facts are facts).


  10. The problem is that people depend on talking heads to spoon feed them not only news but analysis of the news. We need to think for ourselves and be critical of everything we hear. Independent people do not naively accept the explanations of anyone and certainly not those of the propagandists on cable news.

  11. Some political questions are hard. This is not one of them. Restricting freedom of speech and expression via censorship or intimidation is wrong. I think most libertarians know this, and many liberals and conservatives do also. We need to work together against any politicians or officials – leftist, populist, or whatever – who try it. We don’t not have to like each other or agree on much else to get together on this one. Hanging together does beat being hanged separately.

  12. The elephant in the room is that we are talking about lying.

    All corruption and hatred is based on lying.

    If we simply criminalize lying everywhere as we have already necessarily done in court and contracts we would achieve utopia.

    But those big fat lying crooks, the elephants in our society, know that if they couldn’t lie they would lose their advantage over us. So they pick and choose what speech to make illegal. Generally that which exposes their lies.

    Keep it simple stupid. Just criminalize all lying.

    1. Keep it simplestupid.


    2. “All corruption and hatred is based on lying.”


      1. Give any example of corruption or hatred and I’ll shove how it’s based on a lie up your ass.

        1. Next, frustrated into a need to display physical prowess, the creature will throw himself against the transparency.

  13. “The fakest news of all is the claim that politicians respect our liberty, including our free speech rights.”

    I see this in abundance on the part of all political stripes.

  14. This article is so far off base that even Jon Lester could pick it off.
    Censorship is what we have right now–when the largest segment of the media (including articles like this) are in league with one political party/ideology and bending information to suit an agenda. Shouts of “fake news” are not a threat to a free press; biased reporting, on the other hand, is quite destructive

    1. We have been fed a nearly constant diet of fake news by the legacy media over the last 2-1/2 years regarding Trump’s activities and supposed ‘collusion’ in subverting the 2016 election.
      Those of us who recognized it as such were not harmed; we called the bullshit as we saw it.
      Many of those peddling it, however, seem not to have progressed past “grieving” and hardly any have gotten past “anger”; note the laughable claims of ‘Constitutional CRISIS!’.
      Censorship is bad, everywhere and always, including censorship of lefty congress-vermin, as appealing as that is.

      1. This was not meant as a reply; Reason’s new format is going to get the same contribution as last year.
        Don’t spend it all in one place…

  15. Fake news is lousy journalism. Journalism that take single facts interpret them in a way the writer is predisposed to. The writer then does not check for information that might disagree. It is rarely lies. It is mostly unfair interpretation of the facts. Both sides of the political spectrum use it. It is the reason that the media is held in such low regard. Complaining about it has nothing to do with censorship.

    1. Also, it brings up an excuse to point out other, maybe-sort-of-related facts.

      Donald Trump did A today. Trump, of course, did B and C in the past and is obviously a big poopy head.

  16. Misrepresenting facts to achieve “what you are predisposed to” whether or not you have fact checked, demonstrates intent. It is lying.

  17. The truth is almost without fail this type of stuff is supported by progressives, and globalists of all stripes… Because they’re the ones who have to constantly lie and distort the facts to try to further their agenda. They don’t want people to be able to question their narratives, hence need to control speech.

    Many facts are not on the side of the progressives or globalists, so it only makes sense that they want to stifle speech.

  18. Fake News is LYING. Fake news is PROPAGANDA.
    What part of LYING PROPAGANDA is in any way desirable?
    I question why the writer thinks LYING PROPAGANDA is somehow good for us?

    1. You mean lying like saying Trump was a Russian agent? That kind of lying? Or that Iraq had WMDs? Etc. Because as far as I can tell the media and establishment are totally fine with lies like those… They just don’t want facts getting out there that contradict their narratives.

      There are thousands of facts, statistics, etc that the MSM doesn’t EVER mention because it would wise people up to a lot of the BS in the world. THAT is the kind of stuff they want to stop.

      1. On a call in radio show a few years ago I told the panel that Assange isn’t a traitor because he shares the information with everyone equally.

        An editor of a neocon financial newspaper said “information is power and I want the power on our side”.

        They no longer invite listeners comments and that editor is now the host.

        1. Sounds about par for the course for establishment types! IMO if your average citizen understood half as much about a multitude of issues as even I do, and I don’t know nearly as much as many people, we’d be throwing 95% of politicians in jail the next day and changing course of almost all our major policies.

          This is of course why they don’t want people knowing the many thousands of random stats that I know that make me realize the whole “world view” as it is generally presented to the average person is essentially total bullshit and lies. Like literally almost everything. Some of the most fundamental “truths” people are taught to believe are outright lies, and once you know the truth you realize basically the whole world system needs to be reorganized differently. Whatever. Idiots will either wake up, or they won’t. Either way I’m going to roll with the punches and try to live my best life.

  19. The real problem of censorship is who controls which information should be censored.
    We have just had over 2 years of constant conspiracy broadcasting accusing Trump of colluding with Putin to steal the 2016 election. We have had an extensive investigation by Mueller, who was certainly no friend of Trump’ which cleared him of the claim, yet we still have people like Rachel Madow and Clinton continuing to accuse him of collusion. Yet they are still not being banned by You Tube or Facebook when they make these claim. There is an massive disparity in how these media giants apply their rules and they are obviously applying these rules along partisan lines. This then makes their application an editorial decision and their protections need to be removed. They should either be held responsible for the content on their platforms, or stop editorialising their censorship decisions. MSNBC and CNN have NEVER had any of their content removed under facebook’s ‘conspiracy criteria’ and god knows conspiracy has been Maddow’s bread and butter for the last 3 years

    1. Excellent example.

    2. Almost EVERYTHING the progs push requires either an outright lie or a VAST misrepresentation of the truth, selective ignoring of facts that counter their narratives, etc. A million examples could be given.

      As far as I’m concerned, I don’t even care if we end up with a right wing “strong man” at this point… Beats the hell out of the trajectory we seem destined to be on if these people don’t get slapped back into their place. This Republic needs a Sulla methinks.

    3. Trump colluded with Putin and then obstructed justice many, many times about it.

      If you want to talk about propaganda, try worrying about the complete mischaracterization of the report you’re buying beause it came out of Orange Fatso’s weird little mouth and that wombat-headed assface on FOX News who does his butt work.

      1. How did he collude? I think it is obvious Putin was pro Trump, and may have done some things to help him. But Trump had nothing to do with it.

        This is no different than Obama stumping for Remain in the UK at that point… Putin putting his nose where it didn’t belong perhaps, but that’s about it. Put down the crack pipe Tony, you’re better than that.

  20. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t even care if we end up with a right wing “strong man” at this point… ”

    So much for libertarians being the last line of defense.

    You people would be scary if you weren’t so pathetic and hilarious in your impotent rage.

    Try not reading rightwing propaganda all the time. Constant misdirected anger is bad for the heart.

    1. So much for libertarians being the last line of defense.

      We are the last line of defense, against right wing strong-men like Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, etc.

    2. Do you know who Sulla is Tony? He’s the kind of guy we need to straighten this country out.

      To give you the cliff notes, he was a Roman general and Consul who used powers within their legal system (essentially what we might consider martial law types powers today) to take dramatic actions to clean up shop and deal with a bunch of people who were traitors to the Republic. After kicking ass and taking names he retired and went to live out his days at his country estate.

      That’s what I’m talking about. People called him a tyrant and all that shit during the time, but he did the right thing and retired once he’d saved the Republic, unlike Caesar who was a tyrant.

      IMO there are more than enough laws on the books for legitimate crimes to take out half the shady politicians in both parties who have tried to destroy this country. It would just take somebody getting aggressive and seeing it through. IMO there is nothing wrong with legitimately formed treason trials or the jailings/executions that come about as a result of such trials.

      Every system rots eventually, and you have to clear out that rot periodically. Our system is long overdue for a cleaning. The reason I said right wing, is because libertarians are too big of cowards to do what needs to be done to deal with the commies… And obviously a leftist strong man would be doing the exact opposite of what is good and needed to restore the republic. Hence right wing badass is needed.

      1. Then surely you’ll find absolutely nothing wrong with preemptively jailing you for your psychopathic statements.

        1. What is psychopathic with seeing that our system has become extremely corrupt and that we have a ton of criminal politicians in office? What is crazy about wanting to equally apply laws to said politicians and actually prosecute them for their crimes?

          Nothing. This would end up throwing tons of Ds AND Rs in prison. Corruption and traitorous behavior has been a bipartisan effort!

          If we don’t punish past criminal politicians, and straighten things out going forward, this county is done-zo. I’d rather see it saved, but I’m prepared to live my best life as the country burns and collapses too.

  21. I never share any message if I have no idea, because fack news is hurt. if anyone needs help in which is not share fack news.

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