Do we need an independent body to prevent the media and politicians lying to the public on matters of fact/evidence?

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8 December
09:33
December
2016

To answer this question properly, we need to look at each of its components individually. Therefore, I'll first look at lies by media outlets and politicians separately; the motivations and ethical considerations behind telling a lie, and the consequences for telling it, are quite different for both fields. Next, I'll go into what 'independent body' might mean in practice, and the implications of 'preventing lies to the public'. And finally, I will discuss what I see as the best way forward.

Lies by the media

Overt lies and untruths published by media outlets are, of course, nothing new. However, recent developments in the global media landscape have changed the dynamics of the journalistic field. For example, the issue of 'fake news' has become very relevant in recent months, particularly after Donald Trump's electoral victory was allegedly helped by a string of viral news stories that were either fabricated or did not meet the standards of journalistic good practice. On the internet, content that evokes an emotional response such as anger, outrage, or sadness finds fertile breeding ground aplenty, and viral stories generate revenue. As I've explained on this website before, entering the journalistic field as an online content producer requires little to no investment, and cheap or free marketing tools are available to everyone. To someone willing to forego standards of journalistic decency, publishing blatant untruths is therefore just another way to make a fairly decent living. Aside from that, some media outlets, often funded by governments, impose an editorial line that prevents their journalists from adhering to the journalistic code of ethics when it comes to reporting on issues sensitive to the entities providing their funding.

In many ways, both the law and good practices within the field of journalism establish a regulatory framework that, while imperfect, makes it hard for outright fabrications to proliferate (at least in many Western democracies). How to combat publications that deliberately operate outside of this framework, however, is a more challenging issue. While laws preventing defamation exist pretty much everywhere, it is notoriously difficult to obtain a criminal conviction. With 'fake news' and disinformation being as profitable as they are, it is difficult to envision how governing bodies will be able to keep up with the high volume of fake publications, particularly online, where transnational boundaries practically do not exist.

Lies by politicians

Lies and untruths told by politicians are different from those told by media outlets, because they are not subject to the same level of scrutiny. In many countries, politicians enjoy a greater degree of protection from the law when it comes to free speech, and high courts in for example the US and the Netherlands have been notoriously unwilling to infringe on politicians' right to speak freely, even if they use this right to say things that are untrue. In some ways, we expect our politicians to lie or at least hide parts of the truth, and we see it as the responsibility of the media and other politicians to hold them accountable; the popularity of outlets like Politifact is a testament to this popular demand. This, again, is an imperfect system that occasionally rewards those who know how to get away with a well-told lie. But the alternative, a regulatory body that serves as an arbiter of political truth, is difficult to envision.

An 'independent' body? And what does 'prevention' mean?

The question at the top of this article mentions the need for an 'independent body' to regulate the proliferation of lies. Especially the word 'independent' is hard to pin down. I suppose it is theoretically possible to get together a panel of well-qualified experts and have them assess the veracity of political or journalistic statements. However, this becomes very complex once we factor in issues of authority and enforcement: if the panel determines a statement to be false, what is the next step? Does a public prosecutor start preparing a defamation case against the statement's source? If so, what is to say that this panel is 100% objective and insensitive to political or financial pressures? And who finances and regulates the panel in the first place? If not, what makes the panel different from already existing fact-checkers and other non-government actors that operate within the sphere of accountability? 'Preventing' politicians and media outlets from lying may sound simple on the surface, but a regulatory body that assesses 'truth' and has the power to enforce it is difficult to envision without wading into a morass of discussions on the regulation of free speech, which, rightfully, makes many people very uncomfortable.

So what is the way forward?

Although it may sound like a good idea to punish blatant falsehoods, I am no fan of a regulatory body with the power to potentially limit free speech, even in the case of unambiguously fake news; existing defamation laws and self-regulating journalistic field are an imperfect but somewhat adequate means to weed out the worst excesses, as witnessed by the recent flurry of attention for fake news stories, and I am uncomfortable with any agency that professes to know and enforce the truth. However, this is not to say that lies in the political and journalistic sphere are not a problem, and that we should do nothing to prevent the proliferation of false information.

The solution, in my view, lies in education. In our online media landscape, it is of vital importance that consumers can distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources. Critically evaluating a piece of information has become an indispensable skill that school curricula across the globe have been slow to include. This has fuelled a demand for online platforms that assess the reliability of viral output and educates visitors on how to recognise propaganda, disinformation, and fake news.

Together with a group of people from the Netherlands, I am currently starting up a project that does exactly this. It is called the Disinformation Generator. This is a platform where users can create their own completely fake news article, accompanied by educational material on the techniques and methods used by purveyors of fake information. The platform will be supported by a community of experts, who provide extra material centred around a theme that changes regularly, for example national elections, climate change or terrorism. Users of the platform will always find fresh information, and will be able to engage in discussion with other users and experts about certain topics or the veracity of online information in general. The project is due to launch in January of 2017, and I will keep you all updated on this page and elsewhere.

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