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  • Writer's pictureJustin McBrayer

The Risk of News Censorship

The world is confronting higher rates of misinformation and disinformation than ever before (for a primer on the difference between the two, see here). Fake news is making people sick, costing people money, and making it exceptionally difficult for citizens to elect decent officials and hold governments accountable. What can we do about it?

Everywhere I go to talk about fake news, someone is quick to offer the following solution: censorship. If people are posting fake news, we should just stop them. It's the government's job to keep people safe and that should include safety from fake news. In the US, the government already compels speech in certain commercial cases (like requiring a list of ingredients on food items for sale) and curtails it in others (like cases of defamation or shouting "fire" in a crowded theater). Controlling fake news is just one step more.

The solution is as flawed as it is easy. The first reason is that there's no bright line between what's true and what's false. In some cases, that's just because the evidence is ambiguous. For example, is nuclear power more dangerous than fossil fuels? In others, it's because our language is slippery. When your neighbor posts on Facebook that she believes the 2020 election was stolen, does that count as misinformation? The evidence is against her, but unless she's lying, she's saying something that's true: she BELIEVES that the election was stolen. Should the censor get involved? (For more true-but-deceptive examples that confound censors, see here.)

But the second, more serious problem with censorship is that at most one group gets to decide what counts as true. To play the role of a censor, you have to have a list of what's true and what's false. Somebody has to write that list. And since fake news is most often found on controversial topics, it means that controversies will be settled by fiat. That should be enough to concern anyone who cares about truth and freedom.

At his trial, Jesus tells Pontius Pilate that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. Pilate's reply made him famous: "What is truth?" In one respect, the question is a simple one: the true is anything that correctly describes the world. In that sense, what's true is true and it isn't up to us. But in another sense, the question is quite difficult: who gets to decide which things COUNT as true? That's the challenge to censorship. In a censorship regime, it's not that everything that is false will be eliminated. It's that everything the censor THINKS is false will be eliminated. There's a world of difference between the two.

And since Francis Bacon was right--knowledge is power--it matters a great deal who gets to say what counts as true and what counts as false. That's because the basic problem remains: (a) government officials are both fallible and selfish and (b) the censorship of certain claims will harm others but benefit government officials. Anytime those two conditions are met, it's reasonable to expect a significant amount of harmful censorship. Punchline: in the real world, the arbiter of truth always ends up being the people with the most guns. A few examples are sufficient to make the point.

For the last twenty years or so, China has operated the most pernicious level of media control the globe has ever seen. The so-called "Great Firewall of China" controls the flow of information in-and-out of the country, and the government regularly uses force against citizens and journalists who defy the censors. The government blocks websites and social media companies that don't comply with its strict rules, though Chinese citizens try to stay one step in front of the censors (and had some success during COVID doing just that). And you don't need a PhD to guess what the Communist Party counts as true when it comes to matters of Hong Kong, the South China Sea, democracy, Tiananmen Square, or any number of controversial issues.

Like China, Russia has one of the strictest laws against fake news, complete with steep fines and jail sentences of up to 15 years. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the law was strengthened to penalize bloggers and journalists who referred to the invasion as a war or argued that the neo-Nazi justification was bogus. From Russia's point of view, those claims count as false, and so they are fair game for the censor.

The award for the most far-reaching and menacing censorship goes to Indonesia. Indonesian laws on censorship are executed by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (Orwell would have loved this). The ministry has the power to remove prohibited content online and to force content providers (like websites or social media companies) to provide user data to the government.

And what, you might ask, counts as "prohibited content"? Answer: anything that violates Indonesian law, disturbs the community, or helps others gain access to either of those things. That means even true claims can be censored as long as they violate the law or disturb your Indonesian neighbors. As you might have guessed, the people with the guns get to make the call on which claims the community might find disturbing.

Democracies--especially those with ideological supermajorities--do the same. In India, any website that publishes something considered fake by the fact-checking division of India's Press Information Bureau will be taken down. Within days of getting this new power, the bureau forced Twitter to remove links to a BBC documentary film that was critical of Prime Minister Modi. In the government's eyes, Modi is a hero and the aspersions of the film amounted to fake news.

Given these examples, there is little reason to think that censorship on a broad scale would be any more successful here in the United States. Despite being a moderately well-functioning democracy, our government doesn't solve the basic problem, either: our government officials are both fallible and selfish and (b) the censorship of certain claims will harm others but benefit them. That's a perverse incentive that would tempt even the most virtuous censor.

How bad would the censorship get? It's hard to say. Jeremy Bentham wrote that "As to the evil which results from censorship, it is impossible to measure it, because it is impossible to tell where it ends." If he's right, then even if free speech has some significant downsides, it looks better than the alternative.

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