It used to be said, with joking irony, “it must be true: I read it in the newspapers”. The obvious implication was that journalists could not be counted on to tell the truth. The irony is double now: old media still take their legal and moral responsibilities to check the facts seriously – as the vast majority always did – while millions today seem to believe whatever pops up on the internet, messaging or social media with no verification whatsoever.
There appears to be no bounds to popular credulousness, which is dangerous at a time when many stories that whizz around online are made up, sometimes benignly for humorous purposes, but frequently malignly, in order to cause damage to individuals, political parties or institutions. It ought to be incontestable that we do indeed live in an age of “fake news”.
It is therefore much to be lamented that some are disputing this on the grounds that they don’t like some of the leaders who rail against this phenomenon. They have Donald Trump in particular in mind, but some so-called strongmen and autocrats have also been called out for using the term “fake news” to undermine allegations against them.
Firstly, there is a growing consensus that this is a deep-seated and widespread problem. The list of world leaders who have demanded action against it goes far beyond Mr Trump. (He, incidentally, may well have good reason to say that some stories peddled about him are fictitious. As the former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby accurately observed: “You can say or write what you like in America and nobody will arrest you.”)
Earlier this month, Emmanuel Macron bemoanedthat “thousands of propaganda accounts on social networks are spreading all over the world, in all languages, lies invented to tarnish political officials, personalities, public figures, journalists.” He announced he would be putting forward a law banning misinformation on the internet during elections.
Germany has already implemented a law clamping down on hate speech – most of which consists of false stereotypes which one could count as “fake news” – and illegal content. And Britain’s Theresa May has also recently authorised the creation of a rapid response unit to “deal quickly with disinformation and reclaim a fact-based public debate”, as a government spokesman put it.
But secondly, there is ample proof that fake news is being actively propagated, including by people who must know the untruth of what they are passing on. To take Malaysia as an example: there are some MPs warning direly that the country is at risk of going bankrupt - when the World Bank estimates that the country’s GDP grew by 5.8 per cent last year and says its economy “is progressing from a position of strength.”
Claims are still being made that the Barisan Nasional government won the last general election by importing 40,000 Bangladeshis to vote for them – even though no evidence of their existence has ever been produced. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak was perfectly justified in saying: “Until today, no one has even seen them or their shadow. Enough of the lies”, but unfortunately there are still otherwise sensible people who think the story – which gets repeated on social media and the net - is true.
Another opposition leader keeps saying that Malaysia has become “one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world” – despite the fact that no such list exists that mentions Malaysia; and nor would it, given that the country is in the top third of the world’s least corrupt countries according Transparency International’s annual list.
Robust political debate is one thing, and as part of that highly selective interpretations can still be technically correct – the GBP350 million that the Leave campaign said the UK could reclaim from the EU each week after Brexit may have been widely regarded as misleading, for instance, but it was true in terms of it being the gross figure that would no longer be under EU control.
But distorting or playing fast and loose with the facts, or telling outright lies, is another. If they gain currency, that has a long-term pernicious effect. The truth becomes subjective. Alternative realities that defy the laws of logic become accepted. Political debate descends into name-calling and insult throwing, if it can even be said to exist when there is no longer any shared agreement on what constitutes the facts.
If they are to be protected, that will mean having to clamp down harder on those who peddle disinformation, either deliberately or carelessly. Free speech advocates who instinctively oppose any moves to restrict their liberty to say or publish anything they like are mistaken. They are privileging the right to tell lies, often harmful ones, over the necessary guardianship of the truth.
That so many countries – from France and Britain, to Malaysia and the Philippines - are waking up to the need to be proactive about combatting fake news is to be welcomed. This is what will actually save free speech that deserves the name. That it is even incumbent on us to “reclaim a fact-based public debate”, as the UK spokesman put it, is shocking enough as it is. Call out the fake news complainers who are guilty of disseminating it themselves, for sure. But do nothing to undermine the fight for the facts. It is nothing less than one of the most important battles of our time.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia