Freedom of Expression and False News
    Category: Column By : James Kallman Read : 652 Date : Tuesday, March 01, 2017 - 11:53:12

    According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression is the right of every individual to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, and regardless of frontiers.

    The degree to which this is upheld varies enormously from severe restrictions in closed societies to almost full freedom in countries such as the U.S., where the right is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution, no matter how obnoxious someone’s views might be to the majority of the population.

    Some restriction is warranted, of course, especially to guard against hate speech and incitement to violence. Meanwhile, redress for direct attacks on individuals through propagation of false witness is generally channeled through the civil courts, though chances of success often depend upon the case’s legal jurisdiction. 

    With rights come obligations, however, and in the Internet age and social media, where everyone can globally broadcast their views in an instant, the integrity of the freedom of expression has come under threat from false news. While not a new phenomenon, false news or misinformation as it was previously termed, has long been a clandestine tool for those in power or seeking power. It plays on the human tendency to believe what they’re told.

    The easiest way to counter false news is to treat with suspicion anything that can’t be verified by at least one independent source. However, that’s a lot to ask from a general public in haste, as even journalists fall foul of this dictum from time to time. Indeed, some have made their living from writing half-truths and innuendo and their publications maintain contingency funds to cover out of court settlements.

    Unlike printed media, however, by its very evolution the Internet lives in a largely unregulated world where there is no responsibility to tell the truth. Indeed, why shouldn’t those who believe in a flat Earth be able to espouse their claims? Nevertheless, as in other media where the publisher must be responsible for what they publish, so too should websites have some duty to the public for what is posted.

    Suggestions to register all websites and somehow hold them responsible is fraught with queries in regard to the origin of domain name and where data is stored, plus of course assumes everyone wants to comply—I think not.  Nevertheless, the major Internet and social media players cannot claim they are mere enablers and thus not responsible for their content. Freedom of expression should not include posting outright lies, falsifications or made up “news.” There is a duty to gain the public’s ethical trust by developing methods to determine and mark the reliability of news items. The alternative is national censorship.