Fake News can have real consequences. The “pizzagate” debacle, in which an armed man pursued vigilante justice over a fake story involving Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a Washington, DC pizza shop shows us just that. In one of Clinton’s first public appearances since the election, Clinton called the proliferation of this fake news an “epidemic.” (4). I agree with her. However, Clinton went on to back the idea of bipartisan legislation to give Congress power to combat “foreign propaganda” and claimed that fake news is “a danger that must be addressed and addressed quickly.” (4). This proposal is the part that I absolutely disagree with the former Secretary of State on.
First of all, it’s important that we all admit that fake news is a real problem. Some are quick to dismiss the fake news allegations as an excuse for Clinton losing the election. It’s perfectly fine to admit the existence and impact of fake news, yet believe that Clinton lost for a variety of other reasons. Fake new festered on social media this cycle. The “pizzagate” scandal alone had roots to Twitter, 4Chan, and Reddit (2). These fake stories would then catch fire, seen in YourNewsWire.com, tap-news.com, and USA Newsflash, three fake news sites, all having over 100,000 interactions each on their report of the “pizzagate” story. Another example is the false claim that protesters in Austin, TX on the day after the election, were paid to be there. This started from a tweet from a guy that I won’t name, and was shared over 16,000 times on Twitter and over 350,000 times on Facebook (3). This conspiracy would even be trumpeted by Trump himself, who later that day would tweet about “professional protestors.” (3)
Although this propaganda is a massive problem, it is not a problem that should be up to the government to fix. Unfortunately, the first bill to combat this problem has already quietly passed in the Senate. On December 8th, the Senate passed the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act. This bill was introduced by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) in March. The bill aims to improve the ability of the United States to counter foreign disinformation from Russia, China, and other nations. (5) It is perfectly fine for companies like Facebook or Twitter to determine what appears on their sites, and they already have been doing this for years. However, the government shouldn’t play a role in which information the public sees and which it doesn’t. Two main priorities of this bill are to “proactively advance fact-based narratives that support U.S. allies and interests.” And to “establish a fund to help train local journalists.” (5) The vague wording of this bill, and the implication of further legislation to follow, should be worrisome. For further reading on this bill, please visit the following link.
After January 20th, the committees proposed by the various pieces of legislation working through Congress would be staffed largely by Trump appointees. According to the legislation, the committees would be composed of individuals hand-picked by the leadership of the FBI, the state department, Pentagon, justice department, treasury department or any other agency designated by the President. (1) These committees would be tasked with “exposing falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism and assassinations” carried out by the Russian Federation. However, the committees’ work isn’t limited to exposing just these activities, as it can be broadened to include “such other duties as the President may designate” (1).
Government regulation on what exactly constitutes “foreign disinformation” and “fake news” is a slippery slope. As vigilant citizens it is our responsibility to combat this problem through educating our peers. If you see a fake news article shared on Facebook, gather a variety of reputable sources and expose the story for what it is. If fake news is a necessary consequence of the internet remaining the marketplace of ideas that it is now, then that is a deal that I am willing to take.
Penn State College