Six years in prison for sharing fake news

Big Brother: These giant posters warn Malaysian citizens not to post “lies”. © Getty

Should passing on fake news be a crime? In Malaysia anyone convicted can now face a lengthy jail sentence or a huge fine. Some Western nations are planning their own anti-fake news laws.

Right now in Britain, anyone convicted of assault could be sent to prison for a maximum of five years. Meanwhile, in Malaysia you could be locked up for even longer just for sending a tweet.

That is, after a controversial new law to combat “fake news” went into effect there last week. Anyone convicted under its terms faces a potential fine of over £90,000, as well as a maximum jail sentence of six years.

The bill’s definition of fake news is incredibly broad, describing it as “any news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false”. Offenders are defined as anyone who “knowingly creates, offers, publishes, prints, distributes, circulates or disseminates any fake news”.

Professional news sites, blogs and personal social media accounts are all covered by the law. Many see the bill as an attempt by the government to crack down on dissent and silence political opposition ahead of upcoming elections.

And while Malaysia’s approach to fake news is extreme, several other countries are also preparing their own laws.

The Irish government has discussed proposals to imprison anyone caught using online bots to spread false information. And in Germany, social media sites can now be fined over £40 million for failing to remove “obviously illegal” content. President Macron has suggested similar rules for France.

But behind these plans lies an uncertainty about what “fake news” really is.

Some stories are just wild fabrications. Many appeared during the 2016 US presidential election with obvious political motivations, for example: “Pope backs Trump” or “Hillary sold weapons to ISIS”.

However, since President Donald Trump popularised the phrase, more politicians around the world are using it to dismiss negative, yet legitimate, media coverage. For example, an official in Myanmar dismissed the widely-reported genocidal campaign against Rohingya Muslims as “fake news”.

Should sharing fake news be made a crime?

Faker felons

That way despotism lies, some argue. The “fake news” label can be applied so liberally that laws criminalising it could be abused by those in power. This would strike journalists into silence and diminish the free speech of private citizens, putting our very democracy at risk. Instead, we must invest in education, giving people the power to recognise falsehoods for themselves.

Strong action must be taken, others respond. It is the very danger that fake news poses to our society which necessitates such a law. Permitting people to share lies, propaganda and misinformation allows dangerous ideas to fester — ideas which spread like wildfire on social media. Criminalising fake news would preserve democracy, not destroy it.

You Decide

  1. How much does fake news worry you?
  2. Is it possible to say something which is both true and false at the same time?

Activities

  1. Using 10 words or less, write down a definition of “fake news”. Share your idea with the class. How are your definitions similar and how do they differ? Is it even possible to clearly define the phrase?
  2. Fake news has been around for longer than you might expect. Starting with the Kenan Malik piece under Become An Expert, do some research into its history. Is it an inevitable part of society? In what ways is modern fake news like that of the past? In what ways is it different?

Some People Say...

“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

Mark Twain

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There is currently no law specifically banning “fake news” in Britain. However, newspapers are mainly regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation which states that the press must not publish “inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text”. In practise, those who break this code are usually asked to publish a correction or make an apology.
What do we not know?
Earlier this year, Theresa May launched an anti-fake news unit, tasked with “combating disinformation by state actors and others”. We do not know if this will lead to any concrete policy changes. There have also been suggestions that Russian agents attempted to influence the Brexit vote by spreading fake news, however this has not been proven.

Word Watch

Maximum
This sentence is specifically for assault resulting in actual bodily harm.
Offenders
The law does not only apply to Malaysian citizens, but to news and content produced by foreign nationals working in other countries.
Bots
In terms of social media, bots are automated accounts which can be programmed to send messages and links to news articles (fake or otherwise). The proposed ban would apply to software which runs 25 or more accounts performing automated tasks.
Obviously illegal
The law is designed to cover hate speech, fake news and other criminal material.
Political motivations
There has been much written on Russian “troll farms” spreading fake news and political adverts during the US election in order to sway it in the favour of Donald Trump. The true extent and effectiveness of this activity remains unclear.
Despotism
Exercising absolute power, particularly in an oppressive and cruel way.