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Call out fake news, don’t censor it

Fake news is a problem, and it’s one that reveals how gullible and uncritical many people are. But the solution to bad speech is still that we allow for more and better speech, rather than deferring our obligation to be critical consumers of information to some external regulator.

Let’s assume that we are not as smart as some of us think we are. I think that this is true (even if sometimes overstated), and that realising it’s true allows us to accept that, sometimes, we don’t know what’s best for us.

Recognising that we are irrational choosers doesn’t tell us how to solve the problem. I would argue that we should accept that “nudges” or “benign paternalism” are acceptable. But you could object that, even if we don’t know what’s best for us, we’re still better at knowing our own wants and desires than anyone else could be.

This standard liberal defence is all good and well, except for the fact that it takes a completely atomistic view of society. You don’t need to be a communitarian to agree that many of our problems are collective action problems, and that greater freedom overall might be secured by certain instances of localised restriction of freedom.

In other words, you aren’t (yet) betraying your liberal identity if you accept bans on (for example) hate speech, on the premise that they are necessary to make the market for speech more open to everyone. In the case of hate speech, the restriction would be a way of artificially creating less prejudicial conditions for certain groups of people who have historically been barred from, or compromised in, that market.

But any restriction on freedom needs to be implemented with great caution and has to be (in our best estimation) a way to achieve greater freedom for all, on aggregate.

So, although I’m not a free speech fundamentalist, I am still committed to the idea that our best protection against dangerous speech is more speech — speech that points out the errors and makes us better able to cope with misinformation in the long run.

Two people have recently argued that one example of speech that should be curtailed, for our own good, is fake news (often under the guise of “satire”) on the internet.

Novelist and satirist Tom Eaton uses counterfeit currency as an analogy, concluding that: “When you print fake banknotes you go to jail because you’ve undermined trust in your country’s currency, and without trust in its inherent value, money becomes worthless. Fake news should be treated exactly the same way.

“Counterfeit information undermines our faith in our institutions, in our news gatherers, even in each other. Worse, it undermines our faith in our own critical faculties. And once we lose that, we’re done.”

Phillip de Wet concludes his piece in the Mail & Guardian (“Fake news ‘satire’ erodes our freedoms”, October 7) thus: “There are ways to hold satire to an objective standard without impinging on the real thing, just as there are ways to combat profit from misinformation without restricting the free flow of information. We need to start exploring them, fast.”

I agree with both of them that the sort of fake news we see on some of these “news” sites is not satire. Instead, they are examples of falsehoods that neither amuse, illuminate nor skewer something worthy of a skewering.

There’s nothing of value in a fake news story about Archbishop Desmond Tutu dying, except perhaps for the cruel laugh you might get out of seeing the ANC Women’s League falling for it, and then sending Tutu’s family their condolences.

But tricking people isn’t the point of satire — the point is to ridicule our shortcomings, rather than plant some landmine that might or might not get set off by some inattentive reader encountering it.

And this is what De Wet and Eaton (disclosure: friends of mine) are concerned about, to varying degrees and with different emphases. I agree with their concerns, but don’t agree that increased regulation is the answer to the problem.

My primary reason for disagreement is that restricting speech presents a slippery slope.

Once someone else is doing the job for us, we no longer need to learn how to do it for ourselves.

More importantly, if this is a reason for restricting bad satire, is there a principled reason for objecting to the restriction of poorly reasoned opinion pieces, or preliminary (and potentially false) scientific research, that might also mislead?

We combat Dr Oz, for example, by exposing his deceptions in publications such as the British Medical Journal. Likewise for Dr Ben Goldacre’s criticism of Patrick Holford, and mine on the epistemic exuberance of Professor Tim Noakes.

Yes, people are going to be deceived.

Responding to this by removing the source of the deception can make us less able to spot the deception, and provides an immediate defence of any future arguments for silencing other false arguments.

It would only be if the potential consequences of the “bad” speech were severe enough that we could contemplate the (in that context, lesser) evil of restricting speech.

And this is De Wet’s suggestion: that “we should not take the risk of finding out” what uninformed people might do with false information.

We can agree that people have become less able to discern sense from nonsense, without thinking that consequence any more likely.

We can agree that it’s distasteful that clickbait farms profit in exploiting our gullibility, without thinking that the remedy to that is essentially to disguise the fact that we are gullible, by no longer letting ourselves read falsehoods, thereby disguising the extent of the problem.

Profiting from gullibility or stupidity is nothing new — what’s new here is the scale of it.

I don’t think, however, that the consequences of it are as dire as De Wet argues for.

Even if more people are being fooled, it’s still a small pool of people who would be inclined to do something stupid as a result of reading something stupid. For example, in the United States, are there obvious examples of this leading to dire consequences? I can’t think of any.

The problem of fake news is partly self-correcting, in that it’s a reminder to the “real” news sites, and to all of us, that we need to put some work into solving this collective action problem — holding each other to account for talking and sharing nonsense.

And it can be corrected with the standard resource of better education, especially in critical thinking.

Restricting the freedom to publish fake news is a Band-Aid, not a solution, and it’s one that might make us more neglectful of the wound underneath.

Jacques Rousseau is a veteran journalist and commentator. This piece was first published on synapses.co.za

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