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.
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.