Fake news is no news.
Manipulation, deceit, lies, rumors and gossip have been around since the dawn of mankind.
Even the Bible addresses the problem: You shall not spread a false report (Exodus 23:1).
Greek mythology had a “goddess of rumours”. Her name was Fame and she was depicted as spreading false news destabilising those that were seduced by her trumpet.
For the Roman historian the eponymous term “Tacitean Rumours “ was coined.
The use of fake news for propaganda purposes is well known and a vivid example is the purported crucifixions of allied soldiers by the Axis powers during WW1 which caused widespread panic to both troops and the civilian population.
Rumours about Jews poisoning wells and devouring Christian children during the plague in the 14th century is another poignant example of the devastating consequences of fake news.
The Harlem Riots in 1935 (caused by false rumours about the assassination of a Porto Rican born child) is a classic. No assassinating had taken place. The boy was fine. He had suffered no harm, yet all hell broke loose on the back of pure fiction
During WW2 a specific “Rumour Project” was launched under the auspices of the Office of War Information pursuant to Executive order of June 13, 1942. The purpose was to provide “an informed and intelligent understanding of the status and progress of the war effort, war policies, activities, and aims of the United States government”. The list is unfortunately long.
These days, rumors are ubiquitous and due to modern technology even more powerful. We may be more tech savvy than at any other time in history, but we are still just as gullible and easy to manipulate as our forefathers.
Remember the tweet (April 23, 2013) which claimed that the White House was under attack and President Obama seriously injured?
The markets crashed. Billions of dollars were lost in record time. The world faced chaos. We now know it was a hoax, but let’s learn from these events. Let’s learn from history.
Why has fake news suddenly become a theme of major concern?
The answer is of course that the perceived interference in democratic processes via the internet arguably increases the reach, impact and risk of willful misrepresentation of facts for all kinds of ulterior motives. Paradoxically the internet’s democratization of content and its wide audience has proven a danger to democracy.
Some of the Internet Service Providers have adopted a pro- active approach to the problem of Fake News.
This should be no surprise since their business model hinges upon simple clicks. Their power as well as their demise is just one click away.
Fake news is bad news to an industry that bases its very existence on the attractiveness of clicks. If ISPs are not seen as acting preemptively it won’t take long before public opinion may no longer support corporations that are deemed to undermine democratic values.
It is easy to imagine the damage a “Fakebook” image would do to those that live and thrive on clicks.
The public sector also has its part to play and responsibilities to assume.
The problem is the following: When confronted with a request of removal, deletion or blocking of content which may be fake ISPs may not be in a position to determine the appropriate course of action. Taking down content may violate protected free speech and leaving it on the net may cause devastating consequences.
If our democracies wish to engage the private sector in this effort, we need to give them a way out on difficult judgement calls.
Our proposal to create an Internet Ombudsman to assist the private sector in difficult judgement calls will also address Fake News.
The Motion for a Recommendation based on our proposal and drafting obtained the necessary signatures of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on January 24th.This initiative could ultimately give rise to a European based Ombudsman Institution:
A truly cooperative effort by the private and public sectors is what is required in order to protect the credibility of the net, our democratic institutions and – lest we forget – our values.