Fake news and freedom of speech

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In spite of a raft of topics to keep news agencies busy in recent weeks, one dominating topic has been the assumed attack on the media themselves.

Facebook, in particular, has been at the centre of attention. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has had to downplay the importance of fake news stories, promoted on their site to billions of users worldwide, in swaying the votes of the US election.

The examples most cited as ‘evidence’ somewhat of influencing the campaign in Donald Trump’s favour include a story that marijuana-infused hipsters tried to break election rules by voting early for Hillary Clinton, and a suggestion that Mrs Clinton had an affair with John Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono in the 1970s. It’s not at first eminently clear quite why such stories might have had an impact on the result when anti-Trump stories, such as his 1998 ‘interview’ where he called Republican voters dumb, or that he was born in Pakistan, were circulating in at least equal numbers.

What is factual is that during the campaign, top fake news stories got more engagement on Facebook than the top real election stories from 19 major news outlets combined. Add to the selection of ‘post-truth’ as international word of the year, according to Oxford Dictionaries, and you sense quite how important falsification has become in the national psyche.

But while there may be some (entirely unproveable) truth that the lies may well have affected an untold number of voters, this shouldn’t automatically preclude fake news stories from social media outlets. A cursory glance of the UK satire website The Daily Mash’s Facebook likes – over half a million – or the likes of US-based The Onion, numbering over six million and counting, demonstrates their importance and likeability from the average user of Zuckerberg’s venture.

One of my personal preferences which provides me with regular information, if mainly of a light-hearted nature, is the Southend News Network (SNN). The readership is relatively low, with under 30,000 likes, but the stories are likeable if but for their very obvious use of satire. The likes of stories such as Thomas the Tank Engine being banned for its carbon footprint or Southend United being fined for fielding an under-strength side for the past 30 years are clearly designed to engage and enthral, not educate and inform.

True, there are some stories that slip the net with the more blurred distinction between fiction and reality. One SNN piece suggested that a Leigh-on-Sea mother was charging a £50 minimum spend on presents for her son’s seventh birthday party, prompting furious tirades from Facebook users who thought the mother’s action was ‘absolutely disgusting’. Embarrassing for those users ultimately perhaps, but does this in itself really demand the type of action that Zuckerberg is suggesting to flag and potentially remove hoax content?

Of course, it is right to seek to block articles if they break moral and ethical guidelines, cause reputational damage to individuals or have the potential to incite hatred of any kind. Yet if it is clearly satire, and surely most of those clever enough to have a Facebook profile and follow these sites should be able to on the whole tell the difference between true and false, then its removal from the internet breaks the principle of freedom of speech.

And in any case, it’s hardly like everything you read in the newspapers is completely accurate, is it?

Adam Harwood is AAT's Media Relations Manager.

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