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'Fake News' Is Not an Excuse to Regulate the Internet

Both Democrats and Republicans are missing the mark when they call for the government to control the flow of information on the internet.

President Trump promised that today he'll announce the recipients of his "Fake News Awards," an honor he's sure to bestow upon unflattering coverage that displeases him, a category that will almost certainly include the book Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff's insider tell-all of life in the Trump White House.

But with "fake news" back in the real news, it's worth reflecting upon how both Republicans and Democrats have utilized the amorphous term to lay the groundwork for the regulation of speech on the internet and why that's a very bad idea.

Shortly after her defeat, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton held a press conference decrying the prevalence of fake news on social media, calling it "a danger that must be addressed."

In October of last year, Democrats in both chambers of Congress took up her call, grilling the attorneys for the tech giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and the role of so-called "fake news" in sowing discord and confusion among the electorate.

"You have been identified as major purveyors of fake news," Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) told lawyers at one hearing.

Some Democrats were explicit in their threats to regulate the companies if they didn't do a better job weeding out trolls, bots, and fake news.

"You have to be the ones to do something about it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), "Or we will."

While Democrats seem concerned that tech companies don't do enough to police content on their platforms, Republicans and conservatives have expressed concern that they do too much to cultivate their users' newsfeeds.

"Your power sometimes scares me," admitted Sen. John Kennedy (R-Okla.) at one point during a hearing.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) questioned the social media giants over whether or not they consider themselves "neutral public fora" and cited a study that claimed to have found political bias in Google search results. Former White House adviser Steve Bannon has called for Facebook and Google to be regulated like public utilities, and conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson made a similar case on his show after Google fired software engineer James Damore for writing an internal memo questioning some of the company's diversity policies.

But both Democrats and Republicans are missing the mark when they call for the government to regulate the flow of information on the internet.

Treating social media as some sort of public utility is quite simply a power grab that all but guarantees that politicians and unelected bureaucrats will decide what information should appear in Americans' newsfeeds and would likely grant the government even greater access to our private communications than it already has.

This is not the first time governments have tried to control new tools of mass communication.

Much like the internet, the advent of the printing press provoked panic and backlash among the elite institutions it disrupted.

America's first multi-page newspaper was shut down after a single edition because it spread rumors about the sex lives of government officials and published what the colonial government described as "uncertain reports," or what we might today call "fake news."

For the crime of publishing without a license, the government imprisoned and later ran out of town another early colonial newspaper's editor: James Franklin, older brother to Benjamin Franklin who went on to run that paper and do a few other notable things.

A few decades earlier, John Milton criticized the British government's regulation of materials produced by the printing press, writing in 1644 that, "Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopoliz'd and traded in by tickets and statute." Instead, wrote Milton, better to "Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple."

Granting government even the slightest control over the free flow of information on the internet under the guise of fighting falsehoods will, ironically, make more difficult the task of discovering truth.

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  • loveconstitution1789||

    The truth hurts.

    Politicians hardest hit!

  • Quixote||

    Did I just read that fake "news" is not an excuse to regulate the Internet? Really? Clearly there must be some mistake here. Surely the author would not dare to defend the "First Amendment dissent" of a single, isolated, so-called judge in America's leading criminal "satire" case? See the documentation at:

    https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • ||

    All these fools calling for more government action and intervention. Do they actually think they're on the 'right side of history' (to borrow a phrase so popular among progressive twits these days) on this issue?

  • SIV||

    Somebody is totally losing it over fake news:

    Arizona lawmaker Jeff Flake compared Donald Trump to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin on Wednesday, delivering a blistering attack on the president to a nearly empty U.S. Senate chamber.

    Flakey not only compares Trump to Stalin, he declares Trump to be "worse than Khrushchev".

    That's long-time Reason cover boy, so dubbed the "second or third most libertarian man in the Senate" for ya.

  • cereal shake||

    He might be the 2nd or 3rd most libertarian. Ugh.

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    It's encouraging to see some Republicans are willing to criticize Drumpf — David Frum is another good example — but the Stalin comparison is a strange choice. Obviously Hitler is Drumpf's most relevant historical predecessor: both seized power by demonizing marginalized groups, both preached militaristic nationalism that can accurately be called fascist, and both attacked the media for doing its job.

  • Ron||

    Unlike Hillary and all the dems attacking the internet media outlets for fake news.

  • ||

    Hillary is a fake person.

  • drugwarisevil||

    Frum is a fake person too. But both he and Hillary are geniune war mongering pieces of shit though. They are doing all they can to make the US a shithole country. No wait. We already are. We're worse than the other shitholes because we sell weapons to keep their shithole leaders in office..

  • Devastator||

    All politicians are fake. Trump has a far higher lie to truth ratio than Clinton ever did. It's pretty bad when you recognize that the President of the United States is basically a liar and that 1/3 of Americans continue to believe everything that comes out of his bigmac hole.

  • redfish||

    Heh.

    Trump said he wouldn't have gone into Iraq, criticized Obama's interventionism, and suggested he could work with Russia. Not that I ever believed he would be an isolationist in office, but none of this sounded like militaristic nationalism.

    Whilst saying pretty offensive things during the campaign, he also said his policies would help blacks and Hispanics who were legal citzens, and made a big point of it. He was also pretty friendly toward the LGBT community, only disagreeing on religious liberty issues the way mist real libertarians do. And Muslims outside the US as a group are not a marginalized group -- they have a lot of real power everywhere in the world. People have to stop pretending they're powerless. Which isn't to say I don't have sympathy when speaking of refugees, and I don't agree with Trump when he speaks of them negatively *as a group*, but then you speak of them *as a group* as well, you just think they're all marginalized victims and by virtue of that portray all Westernerd *as a group* as oppressors, so you have little room for criticism.

    Enjoy your bubble

  • Kevin47||

    Yeah. He did words on his way out of office. Profile in courage, that guy.

    But yeah, he's willing to criticize Trump, so let's all applaud him.

  • vek||

    Trump is far more like Andrew Jackson than Hitler! Don't be daft. Hitler was one of the most hardcore muthfuckas in history, Trump isn't even in the same league. He's not even a Mussolini, let alone a Hitler. You can more fairly compare him to a lot of other people with similar tendencies, but at far lower levels of hardcoreness.

  • Jordan||

    And then he turned around and voted to give The Donald renewed warrantless spying powers. What a hack.

  • Leo Kovalensky||

    No kidding...

  • Ron||

    Stalin took over the news papers and they published the party line I don't see Trump doing that any time soon

  • mtrueman||

    Fun commie fact: It was Stalin who gave Russia's Korean community their first newspaper. The Czar and Lenin had banned them. Stalin also lifted Lenin's ban on the publishing of Dostoevsky's work.

  • Devastator||

    He also directly and indirectly killed over 20 million of his own citizens without feeling a bit of remorse.

  • Devastator||

    The only thing stopping it is the fact that he would be immediately impeached and tossed out. That was never a problem that Stalin had, as he was the absolute dictator of his country and regularly executed anyone speaking out against him, as well as "friends" that he used merely as examples that he was a cold hearted bastard.

  • Liberty Lover||

    If Trump was Stalin, Mr. Flake would already have been executed and in a unmarked grave. I guess our Senators and Congressmen just don't know or understand history.

  • Devastator||

    How do you figure? He does have authoritarian tendencies that are only kept in check by the separation of powers. So saying he is Stalinistic is not necessarily a bad comparison.

  • Alcibiades||

    You have to be the ones to do something about it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), "Or we will.

    Dianne Feinstein - I decided to give up my gun so no one else should be allowed to have one either - is an evil cunt.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I guess lording power over people to get them to fulfill your fantasies is only bad if there is sex involved.

  • ||

    I guess lording power over people to get them to fulfill your fantasies is only bad if there is sex involved and you identify as though you were born with a penis.

    FIFY.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    All I'm saying is words hurt and we should probably repeal the first amendment.

  • cereal shake||

    If words are dangerous...how long till thought regulation? Politicians regulate all kinds of things they can't actually control already.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    In a free society, when weighing decisions the people get to choose whatever source of information pleases them, or none at all. I don't know what happens in this shithole country, though.

  • Rebel Scum||

    Welcome to CNN*, where the facts are made up and the ratings don't matter!

    *It could really be any network, but CNN has been particularly egregious as of late.

    Anywho, they really don't need an excuse but they will use one if they have one. Petty tyrants are petty and they want to control every aspect of your life.

  • ||

    What, you don't appreciate the piercing intellect and profound musings of one Don Lemon?

  • ||

    Petty tyrants are petty and they want to control every aspect of your life.

    So, I have these occasional moments of clarity. Last night, while watching Atomic Blonde, I worried that the media and Trump are (unofficially) in bed with the deep state (and Russia vis-a-vis). That is to say, the deep state continues to hoover up private citizens' info at literally every turn and 'the media' by-and-large covers Trump's tweets, and Trump is all to eager to Tweet for them. And the deep state only stays the deep state and keeps power and stays in the shadows as long as there's a political song and dance number playing and there are mores in society that people dare not violate.

    It seemed a bit paranoid but, at the same time, multiple members of the KGB and Stasi have freely admitted that their respective agencies would've loved to have the liberties and control our government has and that those liberties only expand as time marches forward.

  • GILMORE™||

    While Democrats seem concerned that tech companies don't do enough to police content on their platforms, Republicans and conservatives have expressed concern that they do too much to cultivate their users' newsfeeds.

    Youtube has been aggressive about burying accounts that tend to lean rightward.

    its not subtle. they have their notifications turned off, vids get auto-demonitized even when title + content have been purposely stripped of any possible offending details....you can literally do nothing but click on their videos for hours straight, and they'll never show up in your recommends.

    hell i watched a string of sargon videos one month (i'm not a regular watcher - too long , but occasionally check his stuff out)... and all i got for the next 3 weeks was TYT videos in my recommended list. Its like some kind of sick joke.

  • Kivlor||

    They've done far worse than that. Limited state was added specifically to target right-leaning content producers, not only making it difficult to find their videos, but making it impossible to comment, and removing the "share" options. YouTube has been shadowbanning commenters for a long time as well.

  • marshaul||

    Nice confirmation bias you got going there. Meanwhile I watched a single Sargon video (he's really not that great) and I get recommendations still.

  • GILMORE™||

    My 'personal experience' isnt the basis of my assessment. its stuff that dozens and dozens have reported on. YT has put restrictions on a bunch of conservative channel's content.

    http://fortune.com/2016/10/21/youtube-prageru/

    its not an algorithm - its blacklisting

  • Kivlor||

    'Fake News' Is Not an Excuse to Regulate the Internet

    No. It's not. The fact that Twitter, Facebook and Google have been acting on behalf of foreign governments and even certain political parties here in the US in order to silence and ban unpopular criticism of the rightful masters of the plebs seems to be a very compelling reason to both regulate and punish them legally though.

  • Rhywun||

    Twitter, Facebook and Google have been acting on behalf of foreign governments

    Yeah, OK.

  • mtrueman||

    Doesn't this run counter to the Reason line on the issue? Shouldn't these private groups be able to slice and dice the information as they see fit? Who would do the regulating and punishing except for government?

  • Vladilyich||

    At the moment, we have "contempt of court" and "contempt of congress", but no "contempt of president". I see the Tea Party making that law in the foreseeable future. They cannot tolerate anyone who doesn't worship at the altar of Trump.

  • buybuydandavis||

    I don't care if they're censoring people for foreign governments or their own ideological designs.

    Communication infrastructure providers should be content neutral. Like roads. Like phones. Like power.

  • Rhywun||

    Granting government even the slightest control over the free flow of information on the internet under the guise of fighting falsehoods will, ironically, make more difficult the task of discovering truth.

    But we need to be more like Europe!

  • AlmightyJB||

    "ironically, make more difficult the task of discovering truth."

    It's the point

  • mtrueman||

    "Granting government even the slightest control over the free flow of information on the internet"

    Control over the free flow of information is already in the hands of outfits like Facebook and Google who make no secret of the fact that they filter out "fake news" and other things besides, often at the request of government. Ex. US and China. Weirdly Libertarians want to add yet another layer of filtering of "the free flow of information" with the demise of net neutrality.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    Weirdly Libertarians want to add yet another layer of filtering of "the free flow of information" with the demise of net neutrality.

    The 2015 OIO didn't institute net neutrality.

  • mtrueman||

    Don't know what you're driving at. Care to expand?

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    You claimed net neutrality is in demise. When was it instituted?

  • mtrueman||

    I'm not sure it was instituted.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    So you're lamenting the demise of something that never actually happened.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    It would be possible to get better (more accurate, less fake) content on the internet, with no government regulation at all. And doing it wouldn't require anything radical or untried. It would require only a return to publishing practices of the pre-internet age, which held publishers legally responsible in civil court for false and defamatory content they published, whether it was their own work, or work contributed by others.

    The mess on the internet now is a direct result of a boneheaded congressional move (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) which relieved internet publishers of civil responsibility which traditional print publishers had borne for centuries. Turns out, that responsibility proved wholesome and constructive in practice, and helped privately managed print publishing evolve into a consensus choice as one of the principal ornaments of civilization.

    Re-applying the old rule on the internet would shake things up. Facebook and other giants using similarly reckless business models might not survive being stripped of civil immunity. That would be a good thing, leading to a more decentralized internet publishing ecology, with more voices, better reasoned opinions, and more reliable facts. And all courtesy of private management, with no government intervention. Of course, trolls would hate the change, and that's another plus.

  • mtrueman||

    Are you a lawyer, by any chance? Clogging up the courts with these cases might prove lucrative. Wasn't it the enormous amount of litigation around traffic accidents that led to no fault insurance?

  • marshaul||

    Is this a troll comment? None of this corresponds with history or present reality. Literally ever work is wrong.

  • marshaul||

    word*

  • Priscilla King||

    Excellent idea, especially since smart lawyers advise most people who've been libelled to settle out of court.

  • CE||

    If you want all fake news all the time, let the government control it.

  • Rockabilly||

    Will Al Gore regulate the internets?

  • Pedestrian||

    Not only have you truly drank the repub koolaid but the Internet is singular....there's only the one.

  • rhkennerly||

    To regulate the internet, no. But if massive corporations continue to hide behind the "we just provide the platform" excuse, and continue to deny responsibility for the content of the ads they sell or to whom they rent their 'intellectually protected" alogrythms to in order to sow maximum chaos in our politics & erode faith in our public institutions, they most assuredly will be regulated.

  • Pedestrian||

    Once again, reason would have you believe it's the dems who call hearings and now run the show on capital hill. I thought Reason was Libertarian. Not some typical knee-jerk repub just denigrating dems and liberals for not stopping the the right's authoritarian instincts.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Treating social media as some sort of public utility is quite simply a power grab that all but guarantees that politicians and unelected bureaucrats will decide what information should appear in Americans' newsfeeds and would likely grant the government even greater access to our private communications than it already has."

    Not really
    My phone service isn't (yet) filtered for content. It is possible to be content neutral.

    In Reason's usual "even handed" articles, when Dems want to have content banned, and Repubs want content neutrality, Reason treats it as an equal push for censorship.

    Also, capitalists should be totally free to do whatever they want in their corporations to make money. Free market and all that. Except when it comes to *liability* for what they do to make their money. Then they should be protected through corporate limited liability. Because "free" market.

  • Deflator Mouse||

    I think the problem is much more fundamental, and lies at the heart of the dichotomy between first-principles libertarians and pragmatic libertarians. The former focus on whether an entity is public vs. private to determine whether it can be constrained by law, the latter on whether it is monopolistic vs. competitive. It is an article of faith with some that "monopolies cannot exist without govt support" but we are being shown that that is false. Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter are all private with no ostensible govt support, but any of them has the ability to suppress speech by denying access to their platform, in a way that was hardly possible 20 years ago.

    There's a simple way of dealing with consolidation. When a single company controls 2/3 of an identifiable market, force it to break in half.

  • MyCroftxXx||

    Monopolies CAN exist without government control. The Capitol requirements of an industry limit the compitition. HOw many gas stations does a small town need. do we need two for "compitiion" Why are there only a few car companies? Because it costs half a trillion dollars to make the cars. how many people can come up with that type of money? i see it the same way with telecoms. it cost a ton of money and resources to bring the internet to everone. thus eventually there will nessarily be few players. NOW ON THE OTHER HAND the gov can prevent people from entering the market. these are the two way monopolies are made. only one is really a problem

  • Deflator Mouse||

    This is not the first time governments have tried to control new tools of mass communication. Much like the internet, the advent of the printing press provoked panic and backlash among the elite institutions it disrupted.

    Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Google aren't "new tools of mass communication" disrupting entrenched elite institutions. They are all over a decade old (an eternity in tech) and ARE the entrenched elite institutions.

  • vek||

    I don't think the guvmint should regulate these things... BUT it is very, very clear these companies are highly abusive and riddled with censorship and other misdeeds. People just need to say "Fuck you!" and use alternatives, or not use them at all. I basically never go on Facebook unless somebody messages me. Google I should probably stop using, but I've just never got into the habit of using one of their competitors for search.

    We are finally seeing some possibly legit competition come up. Gabb or whatever versus Facebook/Twitter, there are search companies as well. I think as they increase their bad behavior competitors will only get stronger. They may end up staying "the big guys" for a long time, but if there are viable alternatives we always have the choice to avoid them.

    THAT SAID, the mainstream idiots who pay no attention to anything are very clearly being manipulated by these entities, and are in fact too stupid to even know it. They BELIEVE the insane drivel they hear on CNN as if it were straight from the mouth of The Baby Jesus. But there have always been official platforms for propaganda, so I don't see how this is any different, provided alternatives are still legally allowed.

  • Priscilla King||

    If private people can't blather off the top of our heads on the Internet, then the Internet is just an expensive, fragile, complicated version of the ways we've always blathered, and the role of the Internet is to steer us back to live phone conversations, hand written/typed letters, and the kind of classified ads most newspapers print free of charge. (And I say the sooner the better.) So the'Net itself must be unregulated, except by extending existing laws about threats, defamation, fraud, etc., to cover online communications as they cover pre-Internet communication.

    It's up to web site owners to decide whether we want to be Major News Channels that insist on evidence for everything and neutrality overall, or Private Individuals that share our thoughts without necessarily checking facts. The New York Times and similar "online versions" of major news media are right to insist on traditional standards of neutrality and accuracy for *their* content. You and I, who aren't paid to double-check everything, have a right to post the misquotes, misspellings, etc., and also the wisecracks and vents of emotion, that our friends recognize as "really us." It's up to readers to work out for themselves which sites they're reading for which purposes.

    Let's just say...I prefer looking at printed newspapers. So, if the blather that tells us more about our friends (or e-friends) than about the topics they discuss were to be censored for "fake news," I'd have no use for the Internet.

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