Anti-fake news laws could be the only way to counter disinformation

Fake news is pernicious, all too believable and corrodes both debate and trust in the democratic process. Laws to combat it are vital, says Sholto Byrnes

Press Club of India President Gautam Lahiri addresses a gathering of journalists in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, April 3, 2018.  India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Tuesday withdrew a sweeping new order clamping down on journalists accused of spreading fake news. The rules, issued by a government often deeply sensitive to media criticism, angered journalists and opposition politicians, who called it an attempt to gag the media in the run-up to national elections expected next year. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
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Fake news is not going away. In fact, it is constantly in the headlines. I refer, of course, not to actual “fake news” – as in lies or misinformation – but to the phenomenon. Just this week, the largest TV network in the US, Sinclair, was applauded by Donald Trump and attacked by his critics for having reporters on its local stations warn about “biased and false news”, which they said was “extremely dangerous to our democracy”.

The Malaysian opposition and their friends abroad have gotten very excited about the new anti-fake news bill 2018, which was passed by Malaysia’s lower house on Monday. India’s broadcasting and information ministry announced that journalists responsible for writing or spreading fake news risked losing their accreditation permanently – then almost immediately rescinded the ruling after widespread criticism.

And in Brussels, the European Community commissioner for security, Julian King, has warned of “online disinformation” with the potential to “subvert our democratic systems” and said a gameplan must be drawn up to deal with this.

According to a recent survey by Eurobarometer, 83 per cent of European citizens agree that fake news is a threat to democracy. All the instances above, then, ought to be welcomed. But although many countries are taking measures to counter fake news, there is a curious divide about how those measures are viewed.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron plans to take action against fake news during elections. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has announced the creation of a fake news rapid response unit to “reclaim a fact-based public debate”. Germany already has an anti-fake news law on its books that provides for a fine of up to 50 million euros ($61.3 million). With the exception of a few free speech extremists, these moves have largely been accepted – both in the relevant countries and in the court of international opinion – as necessary and proportionate.

Yet when Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines take similar steps to counter this malign phenomenon, they are denounced by western media as trying to impose censorship and their countries’ governments are accused of being on the road to dictatorship. (I’m sure India’s threat to remove journalists’ accreditation will be similarly criticised.) Do these countries not have the right to protect their citizens and their democracies too?

Malaysia’s law has come in for particular vitriol, despite the fact that it will not be the government but the courts who decide whether a statement constitutes “fake news” or not. (And anyone who doubts the independence of the country’s judiciary should look at their recent decisions, such as the defamation case which Khairy Jamaluddin, a rising star in the ruling Barisan Nasional party, just lost against the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.)

As Malaysia’s communications and multimedia minister Dr Salleh Said Keruak wrote in an op-ed on Monday: “There can be no doubt that this fake news law is necessary.” Like many countries, Malaysia is awash with lies and misinformation masquerading as facts.


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Sometimes they even appear in major international news outlets. Dr Salleh pointed to two instances where a renowned news agency published reports with major errors which were highly damaging to Malaysia’s international reputation. “They corrected their story,” he wrote, “but by that time, the false report had gone around the world – literally – and was printed in papers and published online across the continents.”

This backs the findings of a survey released in the US this week, which found that 77 per cent of Americans think that major traditional print and broadcast media publish “fake news”. And unfortunately it is true that whether by accident or design, sources that one ought to be able to trust are putting out statements that are wrong.

After Robert Mugabe stood down from the leadership of Zimbabwe, one well-known British newspaper reported that he had been president since 1980. He hadn’t. (He took up that post in 1987, having been prime minister for the previous seven years.)

Everyone makes mistakes, you might say, but no correction wa printed. This might not be the most serious example but in an age of information overload, the truth needs policing if it is not to be submerged in a sea of supposition, smears and inaccuracies. Self-regulation, as the EU’s Mr King said, is not enough.

Some people are suspicious of laws targeting fake news because they associate the term with Donald Trump, whose relationship with the truth is certainly unique. But fake news has been around a lot longer than Mr Trump. I first came upon the concept in former US senator Al Franken's 2003 book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. In the updated edition, Mr Franken later outlined how "fake news" about then senator John Kerry's record as a war hero in Vietnam might well have cost him the presidential election he fought against George W Bush in 2004.

The lie, as they say, had got halfway around the world before the truth had put its boots on. So it’s time to give the truth a helping hand. Fake news is pernicious, all too believable and corrodes both debate and trust in the democratic process. Laws to combat it are vital. They should be celebrated wherever they are introduced, whether that’s in Germany, France,Malaysia and Singapore.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia