Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Short of censorship, legislation may be the only way to fight fake news

  • Deliberate disinformation is the by-product of, or parasitic on, free speech as it can be amplified and multiplied uncontrollably by social media at warp speed

People fret about fake news and the danger it represents. Others think censoring it is even worse. But I think calling the problem fake news is a mischaracterisation. (We are stuck with it, though!) The real issue is deliberately biased or manipulated news; and what to do about it. In other words, my news is true news but your news is biased and therefore fake.

It can become a political time bomb when biased or manipulated news is systematically produced and spread to fit an overall narrative or an ideology. This is a big problem for any society and government, whether democratic or authoritarian. That’s why both democracies and authoritarian governments around the world have been working to legislate against fake news, as is the case with Hong Kong and many countries in Asia.

If something is fake, it means it’s false, untrue or contrary to the actual state of affairs. It can be a lie, a factual misstatement or an outright falsehood. There are many ways to address or correct fake news, from libel lawsuits to letters to the editor. While it can cause a lot of real-life damage, I don’t find it intellectually interesting or morally challenging.

Neither is dressing up biases as true (if you believe in them) or false (if you don’t, or if your opponent subscribes to them).

What I think is uniquely damaging and dangerous in our age is that such biases are amplified and multiplied online via social media. Once a biased/fake news item has gone viral, it’s like a wildfire that’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to put out. It becomes a real problem when it coalesces systematically to form a coherent narrative, or as they say, a version of “reality”. For example, former US president Donald Trump famously called every news item he didn’t like “fake news”. He was perfectly happy to spread his own news versions, which were readily taken up and spread by his faithful followers.

Who defines ‘fake news’ in Hong Kong, and is a law needed?

Yes, I blame social media. The problem, of course, has always existed with traditional media, but on a more manageable scale. Those media such as radio, television and print have centralised editorial control, whether by senior editors who fancy themselves guardians of the truth and the public good; or by government censors, who also claim to be working in the moral interest of the public. They may be right or wrong, but they are few in numbers.

Nowadays, though, anyone can have an online platform to pontificate on anything. As in Hong Kong and elsewhere, it’s not at all difficult to become a KOL (key opinion maker). I follow more than a dozen KOL YouTubers – both of the yellow and blue, or the anti- and pro-government camps – who launched their channels during and after the 2019 unrest in Hong Kong. All of them have since built up more than a quarter of a million subscribers, with a few even much more than that.

With traditional media, you have to work many years and build a career before you can be an opinion maker, or the editor or censor of opinion makers. Many such people, such as yours truly, are either retiring, facing unemployment or are already jobless. Online is where the quick buck and public influence are to be had.

The opinions and biases of most Hong Kong KOLs are perfectly predictable, and they constantly accuse the other camp of spreading fake news. But if by fake news, we mean a lie or utter untruth, that rarely happens. Almost always, there is a previous biased selection of facts; not giving you the proper context or giving you the wrong or misleading context; and creating an impression that you might not have if the full facts have been presented to you in a more neutral or less manipulated manner.

But there is almost always some real facts, a little truth or at least not a complete falsehood, in what they say. And that’s the danger. As Evelyn Waugh puts it in Scoop, his classic satire on journalism, there is usually “an embryo of truth, a little grit of fact, like the core of a pearl, round which have been deposited the delicate layers of ornament”.

Hong Kong police chief calls for ‘fake news’ law to assist national security

The KOLs, their subscribers, sympathisers and fellow ideologues coalesce to form echo chambers, reinforce each other’s beliefs and convictions, and generate their own world views and realities. In this new situation, free speech and its traditional philosophical defence offer no solution. Indeed, the manufactured realities are themselves the by-products of, or parasitic on, free speech, which is now the cause, not the cure, of the disease.

As US political scientist Barbara Walter explains on the website Political Violence @ a Glance: “There are two ways that social media could actually be, not only an accelerant of these divisions, but potentially a cause. The first is the recommendation engines – the algorithms that social media platforms have created to feed their users more material that is similar to material they’ve liked in the past. Social media companies do this because their business model depends on keeping people locked in for as long as possible.

“But there’s a psychological component to it: people tend to ‘like’ information that taps into their emotions, and that tends to be stuff that makes them angry, outraged, resentful. And what the recommendation engines do is not just recommend more material like that, but more material that’s even more extreme. So, it pushes people to the extremes of the political spectrum.”

She continues: “The second way social media feeds divisions is that technology companies allow people to post more or less whatever they like on social media. They argue that this is necessary because they don’t want to censor anybody. But what social media companies do – and what they need to take responsibility for – is amplify information and disseminate it widely and very quickly.

“So, if you have a platform where people can post anything they want, and the most incendiary material tends to get the most attention, and the platform serves as a massive dissemination machine, then what they’re doing is they’re taking the most dangerous information and getting it into the hands of people who otherwise never would have seen it.”

A fake news law is not the answer to misinformation

This is a real problem at a time when armed conflicts, social unrest, pandemic-induced panics and extreme ideologies seem to be spreading everywhere. The European Commission has launched a joint action plan against the spread of disinformation. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has put out a joint guideline and declaration on how to counter fake news.

Indeed, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Hong Kong have either already instituted anti-fake news legislation or are in the process of doing so. To some, that may just be old-fashioned state censorship and is worse than the disease. However, political authoritarians naturally favour social order and harmony over free speech; you can hardly blame them for not respecting it.

Instead of ruling it out of court, let’s at least admit that censorship/legislation is not binary, either on or off. Rather it’s a matter of degrees. It may be used judiciously, through an independent court or an absolute censor answerable to no one except the government. You can also legislate or regulate social media to make them responsible for the contents on their platforms. If some contents lead to actual harm to people and damage to property, you can make social media legally liable, through fines or even criminal charges. That, I believe, is the German legal model.

Any which way you do it, there needs to be adjustment and balance, but there is a place for anti-fake news legislation in a world beset by disinformation, often spread with full malicious and terroristic intents. Hiding behind free speech will not do.