So cruelly misunderstood

As we all know there’s a determined move to make sure that someone, somewhere, stops all this fake news flying around. For example, is Hills someone who should be locked up or the most qualified candidate for President ever? Either or both could be fake news – fortunately we have the courts and an electorate to decide that basic question for us. But who should decide whether saying that online is fake news or not?

That’s the problem which faces calls like this from John Harris:

But there is another set of Facebook stories that shines even more glaring light on the company’s mismatch of power and responsibility. A good place to start is Sri Lanka: one of many countries where “fake news” is not the slightly jokey notion regularly played up by Trump, but sometimes a matter of life and death.

I know about this not because of posts on Facebook or Twitter, or the countless outlets that now claim to offer an alternative to the mainstream media, but thanks to the laudable work of the New York Times journalists Amanda Taub and Max Fisher. A couple of weeks ago, that newspaper ran a jaw-dropping story about the surge of hatred and violence towards Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority by the country’s majority Sinhalese Buddhist population, sparked and then further inflamed by material on Facebook. The details centre on the kind of pernicious falsehoods and inflammatory material that routinely circulate on the platform, and which its overlords too often leave untouched.

One such viral lie, earlier this year, was about the alleged seizure of 23,000 sterilisation pills by police from a Muslim pharmacist in the eastern town of Ampara. Then everything exploded after an incident in one of the town’s restaurants. A Sinhalese customer found something in his food and claimed it was one of the supposed pills, put there by the owners. What happened next was filmed on a smartphone: 18 innocuous-looking seconds in which a disembodied voice raged on and on; and, wrongly understanding the complaint to be about a lump of flour, one of the owners replied, in broken Sinhalese: “I don’t know. Yes … we put?”

No, don’t concentrate upon the story itself. Concentrate, instead, upon who decides whether this is fake news or not? For that is the important question here. Who is to be that independent arbiter?

From The Guardian, again this morning:

In less than a year, Cambodia has gone from having the freest press in the region to being one of the most repressive and dangerous places to be a journalist. In the 2018 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index published last month, Cambodia dropped 10 places from 132 to 142, and the country’s independent press was described as being “in ruins”. This was echoed by the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media, which recently concluded that the “facade” of free press in Cambodia had collapsed entirely, with almost half of journalists reporting intimidation.

Hun Sen’s all-out war on the independent media began in early 2017, as journalists found themselves followed and harassed by secret police and controversial commentators were arrested. Then, in September, the Cambodia Daily – which had been accused of a pro-opposition stance – was forced to close over a disputed $6.3m (£4.6m) tax bill.

Ah, right, so we don’t want it to be government which does this then. Or at least we don’t want it to be the wrong sort of government. Or from the weekend:

That’s not chicken feed that $900. It perhaps a year’s income by the standards of that country. We’re talking of something like £25,000 a year for the UK, maybe $40,000 for the US. It’s not chopped liver now is it? And the fee is to, well, the fee is to make sure that those who scribble upon the internet don’t say anything that those in power don’t want them saying.

We also don’t like that, people being charged in order to stop them expressing their opinions.

Both of those forms of and attempts at censorship running into the same problem. Who do we, who should we, trust to be making the decision abut what can be said? Which is, of course, exactly the same problem we face concerning Facebook and fake news.

Who do you trust to determine what is fake? And why should I trust your choice?

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5 COMMENTS

  1. The Guardian censors views on its comment section. It censors news, mainly by omission, with its editorial policy. Oh, and everybody else does too. Now we are all drinking our news from a firehose we must all decide for ourselves, no other person or organisation may be trusted.

  2. That’s rich, looking to the New York Times to ferret out fake journalism, when the only reason it doesn’t have “a jaw-dropping story about the surge of hatred and violence towards” Donald Trump every day is because, on odd days, it’s the turn of the Washington Post. Every journalistic outlet has an animus, either to influence public approval/disapproval or to deliver science spun the way its audience prefers.

    “Fortunately we have the courts and an electorate to decide that basic question for us”? No, fortunately, we have the marketplace. Lefties get to read leftism, and the rest of us get to read Continental Telegraph, and we’ll vote as we please. Keep it out of the courts.