Over the past several years, the oft-used term “fake news” has taken on many different meanings. from being a pejorative used to insult someone on a social media thread, “you are fake news,” to being a description of so-called conspiracy theories, or perhaps satire like the proud “Fake News” website The Babylon Bee, or even what can be considered biased, yet not necessarily false, news reports.
But despite the differing definitions and opinions on what truly constitutes “fake news,” one thing is indisputable. Fake news is a scourge to society that has far reaching implications. Intentionally misinforming the public at different times has led to anger, confusion, and in some extreme cases, civil unrest, and violence.
In this era of social media dominance in our lives, fake news, hoaxes and other cases of widely disseminated misinformation has at times led to awards for damages, as was the case in both American Lawsuits involving Nicholas Sandmann and Alex Jones in the past few years.
But although there is more than enough validity to the aforementioned concerns regarding fake news, there also remains the important question of how politically motivated censorship threatens the dissemination of important information. This occurs when legitimate news that does not favor the political leanings of a particular news outlet or social media company is either buried or delegitimized.
Twitter, in its position as one of the world’s largest social media outlets, has come under fire for these very tactics over its handling, or mishandling, of information, both accurate and fake, over the past few years. Specifically, over its labeling of certain stories, in particular the October 2020 NY Post story reporting the controversial contents of the Hunter Biden laptop.
In addition to being an example of what pundits like Steve Malzberg call “Fake News by Omission,” Twitter’s handling of the Hunter Biden story was a modern day, digital attack against free speech.
In South Africa, groups like the Free Speech Union of South Africa (FSU SA) have been established as a result of the rise of so-called “cancel culture” and its effects on free speech in South African society. This type of advocacy has been necessitated in recent years as a result of the irresponsible interpretation of The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000, which has in some cases severely narrowed the exercise of Free Speech in South Africa.
In the time since Twitter has operated under the ownership of South Africa’s most famous living son, Elon Musk, the platform has attempted to achieve transparency on the issue of the NY Post Hunter Biden story, which is a good thing, obviously. Conversely, many have called out the way that taking a more hands off approach to administrating such a massive platform has created a resurgence in the distribution of misinformation, as the app can enable ill-intentioned individuals to share unverified stories.
It has also long been a breeding ground for so-called “bot” accounts that exist exclusively to spread false or misleading information in an effort to perhaps push a political agenda. And since there are few laws regulating what information can be posted online, we are still operating mostly in a social media environment conducive to the propagation of fraudulent stories.
But the traps associated with disinformation and fake news are not limited only to the Twitters, Facebooks, and Truth Socials of the world, as many websites enable the posting of patently false information in plain sight. These “fake news” stories are oftentimes used as clickbait to distribute advertisements by ad networks like Taboola and Outbrain. They oftentimes confuse web surfers with controversial or inaccurate headlines that diminish the overall online experience.
Theoretically, anyone can easily manufacture outrage or pass on misleading information with the assistance of irresponsible ad networks via many popular online news sites just by creating an “article” and turning it into a native ad. They would then pay an ad network like Outbrain or Taboola to target the users they want. Now that “article” shows up on most websites with the outward appearance of a legitimate news article.
This type of “fake news” has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, and one consumer advocacy group has taken to calling out these advertising tactics. AppEsteem, which was initially founded to “assist app vendors in developing and delivering safer apps to consumers,” has expanded their overall mission to include working towards creating a safer overall online experience.
As part of that mission, they have created a set of what they call “Ad Pollution Indicators” that identify, in part, the tactics used by ad networks that incorporate the spread of these kinds of advertisements packaged as phony news stories.
According to AppEsteem founder Dennis Batchelder, “Because they pollute their web pages with tricky and misleading native advertising, some online news sites have become some of the biggest spreaders of fake news. Web surfers then mistakenly click on these advertisements and fake news stories billions of times daily.”
In America, the country which is considered by many to be the most influential in the world, the issue that has perhaps the biggest influence on whether the rash of fake news infecting the internet is ever addressed is Section 230 of 1996’s Communications Decency Act.
For the most part, the language contained in the law shields social media apps, and in some scenarios, news sites, from legal scrutiny based on what is posted by users on their platforms. Therefore, as a result of the existence of Section 230, which has been dubbed “the twenty-six words that created the Internet,” social media platforms and news sites have little incentive to make any changes to the status quo.
The internet and social media apps are still very much “the wild west” in many ways regarding the spread of information, both accurate and fake. Although the future of Elon Musk’s new vision for Twitter largely hinges on the future of CDA 230, and Musk’s own tenure as CEO of the company is in doubt after a user poll, perhaps the most important group of individuals for limiting the spread of “fake news” in future are the circuit court and district judges that are being nominated and confirmed by the Biden administration at a feverish pace. These judges will ultimately have the dominant say in the immediate future of CDA 230.
In many ways, it all boils back down to the old axiom, “elections have consequences.” In regard to establishing the delicate balance between freedom of speech, truth in reporting, and “fake news” mitigation, truer words may never have been spoken.