Now MPs want to police political discussion
The fake-news panic is nurturing new arguments for state censorship.
Another week, another panic about ‘fake news’ – this time from the heart of the UK political class. ‘Democracy at risk from fake news and data misuse, MPs conclude’ – that was the Guardian’s portentous headline, reporting on a big report from parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee.
Those members of parliament are half right at least. Democracy in Britain and the West is at risk today. But contrary to the wild claims in their fake-news report, the real risk does not come from Russian bloggers or shady groups farming Facebook users’ data. The big threat comes from political elitists like the cross-party clique of Remainer MPs who dominate the DCMS committee.
They assume that people cannot be trusted to judge what is true for themselves, that voters are incapable of freely making rational decisions about which way to vote. After all, look what happened when they finally let us vote on the EU after 40 years of denial! So the DCMS committee wants new state-backed controls on who can say what on social media, to try to ensure voters don’t go astray again.
Behind all the endless waffle and warnings, this is the basic message of the panic about fake news: that democracy is under threat from the demos – the people – because voters are so ignorant and gullible they can be manipulated into voting for the ‘wrong’ things, from Brexit to Trump. The elites prefer a form of fake democracy, where the demos are formally consulted but the other element of the system – kratos, or power – remains in the hands of the few who know best.
The latest MPs’ report goes further than most in making this message clear. The committee’s major concern is not what the Guardian calls ‘more familiar forms of so-called fake news’, such as false stories. Instead the politicians are worried about what their report describes as ‘relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans and their behaviour’.
In other words, the DCMS committee wants to curb online political campaigns which promote ‘hyper-partisan views’ – aka opinions, such as firm support for Brexit, which fall outside the increasingly conformist political mainstream. These social-media campaigns supposedly dupe voters by preying on the ‘fears and prejudices’ of the dumbass demos.
If anybody’s fear and prejudice is on display here it is that of the Remainer elitists, desperate to blame voters for their own inability to win the argument for the EU.
In response, the MPs’ committee wants various new measures to regulate and control the dissemination of ‘fake news’ on social media, from a ‘kitemark’ making clear whether a political posting can be trusted to a law making Facebook legally responsible for ‘illegal and harmful’ content.
The question any such plan to police freedom of expression immediately raises is: who decides where to draw the line? Who will rule on what is ‘fake’ and what is fair?
The DCMS committee’s scheme to make Facebook ‘legally responsible’ for controlling content risks, as previously pointed out on spiked, turning a social-media company into an online Ministry of Truth. We are familiar with governments contracting out various services to the private sector, to shift responsibility. Now it seems we are faced with the prospect of ‘contracted out’ state censorship. The way that the proposals elide ‘illegal and harmful’ content gives a clue as to the potential future minefield for free speech. Who is to decide which words are ‘harmful’ to whom and should be banned? Government ministers? High court judges? Mark Zuckenburg’s gnomes?
The MPs also want a ‘credible annotation of standards’ online, so that ‘people can see, at a glance, the level of verification of a site’. In short, they want a kitemark that will assure us ignorant punters which websites we should believe. And who is to issue such kitemarks of official approval? Why, the government should ‘initiate a working group of experts’ to lay down the line, of course. And there we have it. Like every anti-democrat since Plato, the DCMS believes we should trust the experts and philosopher kings to tell the plebs what we should think. Expert-endorsed kitemarks are for kettles and double glazing, not open democratic debate.
The committee accepts that the very term ‘fake news’ is not helpful, since it is often used as ‘a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader’. Instead they want the government to issue an ‘agreed definition’ of the terms ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’. But again the question arises: who is to do the defining and agreeing?
In reality there can be no advance agreed definition of anything important. The truth is a constantly shifting battleground, not a box to be ticked by experts. That’s democratic political debate.
The Remainer media led by the BBC would never use the term ‘fake news’ to describe those scaremongering stories about how a ‘hard Brexit’ will lead to civil unrest, near-starvation and planes falling from the skies. Meanwhile, the DCMS committee has itself been accused of spreading ‘fake news’ through its report, which seems to be largely based on the conspiracy-mongering of Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who rarely writes or tweets without immediately having to issue ‘corrections and clarifications’ to her overcooked ‘investigations’.
The call for more official gatekeepers and fact-checkers online reminds me somewhat of the fashionable new Video Assisted Referee (VAR) system in football. As the World Cup showed, the appointment of technocratic experts empowered to intervene from above does not end controversies or disputes. Whether you think it was a penalty or not ultimately still depends on where you are looking from and which side you support. That is at least as true of politics as football.
The only way for society to decide what it believes to be true is to champion free speech over censorship; have everything out in the open, and let people decide for themselves. You might not always win the debate; once the democratic genie is out of the bottle it does not necessarily grant all of your wishes. But you don’t get to pick and choose which bits of democracy to accept.
In response to the ongoing fake-news panic, let us remind the Remainer elites that millions of people voted Leave, not because of ‘Brexit lies’ but because they saw the truth about our pro-EU, democracy-loathing establishment – a truth that has been confirmed by all the subsequent efforts to undermine and erase the referendum result. And we voted Leave, not because of the official Vote Leave campaign, but in spite of its ineffective efforts, however they were funded and whoever might have posted what unseen information on Facebook.
Democracy is indeed ‘at risk’ today. The solution, however, is more popular democracy and no-holds barred debate, not less.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His latest book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and What They’re Afraid of, is published by William Collins. Buy it here.
Picture by: Getty.