Israel considers a Ministry of Truth
New proposals to tackle fake news lead in a dangerous direction
“Freedom of speech is fundamental to a democracy… But…”
There’s always a but, isn’t there? This specific quote comes from an op-ed published last week in Israel’s liberal daily Haaretz, in which Dr. Michal Evron Yaniv argues in favour of criminalising disinformation.
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Yaniv, a political science scholar, was summarising a report she had authored on the topic for the Israeli Zulat institute, a young progressive think tank focused on “equality and human rights.” Her report concluded that rampant disinformation is a public health hazard, encouraging vaccine hesitancy, for instance, and eroding public trust in the government.
But while Covid-19 concerns got top billing in the article, the report makes clear that the danger of fake news extends beyond the pandemic. Untrammelled speech, she argues, violates other human rights, including the right to equality (“the main harm of fake news is to ethnic minorities”), the right to a free election (the spread of fake news can have a “harmful influence on the results of an election”), and, ironically, the right to information (“the wide spread of fake news and its growing consumption threatens to take the place of informed opinions in the public discourse”).
The solution Yaniv proffers is expanding the state’s ability to prosecute the creators and disseminators of certain false information. Yaniv and colleagues from Zulat presented these recommendations before the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, this week and enjoyed the blessings of multiple journalists.
That shouldn’t be surprising. Numerous Israeli digital activists and regulators have been clamouring for the power to indict online lie merchants for a while now. During the pandemic, the Ministry of Health joined in, seeking to penalise disinformation about the vaccine and potentially even criticism of the country’s vaccine passport. Now, nearly 70% of Israelis support “harsh government legislation” for the purpose of quelling the spread of fake news, a statistic which Yaniv presents in her report as proof that the time for new speech laws is now.
But there is a long list of problems with this ‘anti-disinformation’ campaign. First, it is a sign of the strange times we live in when human rights organisations see the majority’s desire to curtail a civil right as a cogent justification for doing so.
What’s more, almost all of Zulat’s legal proposals rely on having an authoritative arbiter of truth. Whether it takes the shape of a parliamentary council or a panel of experts, this body would become Israel’s de facto ministry of truth, authorised to bring the power of the state to bear on speech criminals. The idea of government speech inspectors should unsettle anyone concerned with protecting liberalism and human rights.
Third, if we’re worried that spreading lies has a direct and deleterious effect on human rights (a claim which the report more asserts than proves), why stop at online communication? Shouldn’t we punish politicians who lie during massive rallies? Or a comedian delivering a misleading satirical skit on a TV show?
Zulat does express sincere concern about “over-regulation,” noting that their proposals require walking a tightrope in order to avoid unintended censorship. How confident are they in their ability to walk it?
Israel’s speech protections aren’t nearly as robust as the United States. Not only does Israel lack an explicit constitutional right to free speech (or a constitution, for that matter), it is increasingly following in the footsteps of Europe, tending to favour strong libel laws and firm restrictions on political expression and hate speech. Indeed, Zulat’s report lauds the EU and UN’s recent efforts to combat the digital abuse of information — despite the fact that these laws are vague, open to exploitation, and often fail in remedying the problems they set to solve.
And speaking of trust: public trust in Israeli institutions, long on the decline, has cratered during the pandemic. Whether you think the cause is the vitiation of the institutions themselves or the abundant availability of disinformation might determine how you feel about the proposals. There’s truth in both explanations. But if our goal is to make this crisis far worse, then by all means, bring in the state speech police.
Adaam James is a Jerusalem-raised & NY-based journalist and documentary producer. He worked on various shows, including at CNN and Axios on HBO. He hosts the Uncertain Things podcast.
Here’s a useful test for anyone who wants to criminalise disinformation:
Make a list of all the examples of disinformation that would, under a future law, be criminalised. Wait a year. Now review that ‘disinformation’ in light of the latest narrative / set of facts. Is it still disinformation?
For covid, it seems about 90% of the ‘disinformation’ turned out to be true or largely true in the space of about a year.
You will find that the State is the kind of organization which, though it does big things badly, does small things badly, too.
-John Kenneth Galbraith
Interesting and disturbing article. Seems that this should have been one of the least likely countries to have forgotten the harsh lessons of the early 20th century, but here we are. A certain chancellor had his own views basically treated as objective truth in his country. Who would think it is a good idea to create the kind of conditions for that to happen again?
On a slightly different note: So if, say, the inventor of a certain kind of vaccine were to suggest it shouldn’t be given to kids while government bureaucrats were insisting it should be, would the guy who created the thing be penalized for ‘misinformation?’ And what’s the basis for declaring that government bureaucrats would be reliable arbiters of truth on that issue? Or any issue, at all, whatsoever?
Swedes are way ahead of the pack on this one.
Another great article from a website I didn’t know. Thanks for the link!
Your linked magazine ‘Gript’ is interesting, but it does not have comments – I suppose they cannot take the truth either…..
You can comment freely on their Facebook page, where all the articles are posted. Comments on the site itself are moderated
It’s very concerning. There was an article on this on Swedish TV last night. The Swedish media is already exercising “mainstream” censorship and suppression, both in domestic issues and foreign matters, eg. one-sided reporting on Poland’s politics. The thing is, Poland is doing exactly the same but different, as are all other countries. So I guess we’ll just have to get used to being exposed to a tsunami of debatable information where we don’t know what to believe, and if we start digging to find the probable truth we’ll maybe be no wiser.
Several Islamic countries have specialized police forces with the wonderful name of:
” Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,
( is a Saudi government religious authority charged with implementing the Islamic doctrine of hisbah” هيئة الأمر بالمعروف والنهي عن المنكر)
At least they call it what it is……
I first heard an American academic use the neat phrase “Covid-1984” on the BBC World Service, back in 2020. It encapsulated the previously unthinkable authoritarian restrictions that had been introduced then – justified as merely health measures. As time passes, it seems disturbingly ever more applicable.
The problem is differentiating fake news from dissenting opinion. Fake news is a danger to democracy whilst dissenting opinion is essential to democracy. Unlike some, I don’t think that it’s an easy problem to solve; just because someone is disseminating anti-establishment information or views doesn’t necessarily mean he is not malign or that he is right. The issue is that fake news can be a deliberate political act or can merely be people posting something after misunderstanding what they have read or heard; the latter can be shown how thay might have made a mistake, whilst the former will never change because they have an agenda. It would be nice to be able to get out those with the agenda for spreading false information whilst still letting the dissenting views through, but I think it is too problematic. We will just have to rely on people of good will challenging these few rogue elements, there is no place for governments in this because they have “skin in the game”.
Do SAGE’s massive over-estimates of death and disease count?
Keep hard copies of everything.
The idea is to criminalize speech, not save information. The idea is to create an authority which can then arbitrarily remove physical people whom it does not like. Speech, or “information” is only a facade. If a nutjob on the street attacks me because he imagines me to be “harmful”, it has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with this nutjob’s psychopathy. These “ministries of Truth” is global psychopathy, seizing power over sane people and forcing them to submit to maniacs.
I have more faith and trust in Israel’s sense of freedom, than in that of UK, US and EU, let alone the Islamic world…
I thought they already had one
There is no such thing as ‘political science’, if what is meant is ‘the discovery of the true nature of politics’. All it really amounts to is boring statistics, which lack a central rationale for interpretation.
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