Why you should care

Because defining “fake news” is not easy.

In August, the Indonesian police paraded three hooded suspects in front of cameras, with evidence of their crimes laid out on a table in front of them marked “Hate Speech.” Top politicians and many others in the world’s largest Muslim country have been targeted with harassment and disinformation often designed to raise religious tensions, and the government says an organized crime ring called Saracen is behind it all. “The police have identified a business syndicate for disseminating hatred,” says Jakarta-based political analyst Kevin Evans. “It’s a fascinating case study that other countries might want to investigate.”

Governments around the world are scrambling to combat influential online trolls and purveyors of fake news. In the U.S., investigators are still trying to get to the bottom of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, with Facebook and Twitter under increasing scrutiny. But as President Donald Trump deploys the fake news epithet against critical but legitimate stories, other more repressive governments have taken notice — and taken actions that could trample free speech.

… the concept of ‘fake news’ as a censorship tool has gone viral.

Elodie Vialle, Reporters Without Borders

“Fake news has become a new ‘trending topic’ for predators of press freedom, a pretext seized by authoritarian regimes to muzzle media outlets,” says Elodie Vialle, head of the journalism and technology desk at the Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. “It would be too long to mention all the enemies of press freedom because the concept of ‘fake news’ as a censorship tool has gone viral. What is certain is that many of them have taken recent statements by President Donald Trump on fake news as a means of justifying their repressive policies.”

The problem is a thorny one for governments, journalists and free speech advocates. Deliberate misinformation and online harassment spreads faster than ever, and can have intensely destabilizing effects. Sally Lehrman, director of the journalism ethics program at Santa Clara University in California, says the chief question for her initiative, the Trust Project, and its media partners in the Americas and Europe is: “How can we hold news accountable?” She says efforts to improve transparency and diversity “try to move the whole field in the direction of improving quality, rather than suppressing the worst. The worst will start to fall away if we don’t pay attention to it.”

Some governments wield a heavier hand. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s government recently stepped up penalties for the spreading of false information. It’s not a move to break up a crime network, but rather a club to use on the news media, according to University of the Philippines professor Roland Simbulan. Duterte has battled political and media foes over his aggressive prosecution of the drug war — with thousands of extrajudicial killings by police and vigilantes — and attempts to improve the image of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. Duterte is “saying that even the killings are all a product of the imagination, as well as all these reports about policemen getting involved in crime or even killing suspects without due process,” Simbulan says. “They’re making it appear that people who are criticizing the government about this are the ones who are spreading the fake news. He’s trying to pull the rug out from under them.”

Cambodia strongman Hun Sen, who has praised Trump’s attacks on the media, this year brought about the demise of an independent American-owned newspaper by saddling it with an unpayable tax bill and shuttered at least 19 radio stations. Malaysia recently raised the prospect of government registration for high-traffic websites — which press-freedom advocates say is a precursor to stiff legal action. Its prime minister, Najib Razak, has targeted journalists for reporting on a scandal involving Razak’s alleged pilfering of money from a state development fund. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who jailed or exiled 100 journalists in a vast press crackdown after he survived a military coup last year, praised Trump this year for putting a CNN reporter “in his place” during a news conference.

Even Germany took flak from free speech advocates after it recently passed a law requiring Facebook and other tech platforms to delete hate speech within 24 hours or expect large fines. The United Kingdom’s parliament launched an inquiry into fake news this year, though it’s unclear what shape government action could take there.

Organized crime experts tell OZY they have not seen other examples of crime syndicates dealing in fake news, as alleged in Indonesia. Investigators in the world’s fourth most populous country have said the Saracen group was likely controlled by a politician, as a hotly contested election in Jakarta this year was filled with religious tensions. However, Islamist sentiment whipped up online worked against the preferred candidate of President Joko Widodo.

So, is this a politically motivated law enforcement crackdown? “There’s some concern to me that they’re using this as a new kind of anti-subversion law for going after anybody and everybody who’s got an opinion,” says Evans, the political analyst. “But there seems to be plenty of scope for things that aren’t private opinion at all — insults and defamation against people and outright lies. And I don’t see why they should be able to hide behind the anonymity of social media.”

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