The regulation of political information in the fake news era

Written by Alexei Verkhovtsev

From a mysterious Russian influence in the United States presidentials to the more recent Italian parliamentary election, the criticisms of political information and its regulation have probably never been discussed so heatedly. As the dynamics of its spreading become more complex and as the importance and weight of political news in the determination of political outcomes increase, it becomes more and more of a challenge for the public administration to understand and regulate the different forms of political information.

It is certainly legitimate to ask oneself if political information should at all be regulated. It should first be understood that the regulation of the press and information in general is the wider issue, and that political information is but an instance, despite how critical, of this problem.

Being the system of the different means of spreading information something that we would all be very much worse off without and considering that with the spread of digital technology it is becoming progressively harder to make profit off informing people, it makes most sense to think of this system as a public good. Having made this step forward, we can then ask ourselves how and in what measure should the public administration intervene, should it nudge or shove, in order to keep the public good we just talked about in good shape, and, in particular, how should it intervene when politics is involved.

The 2nd of April the lower house of the Malaysian Parliament passed a bill outlawing fake news, the first measure of this kind in the world. The proposal includes jail sentences for those who produce or contribute to the circulation of misleading information.

While the recently discussed Malaysian legislation is more probably part of a political fight itself, being drafted just before the upcoming elections, and is being compared by some members of the opposition as the creation of a “Ministry of Truth”, it certainly is a good starting point for our discussion.

The problem with banning fake news (and it is the consensus that it’s the reason why the bill is expected to become law) is that it gives regulatory forces at least some margin of discretion over what is fake and, as a consequence of that, over what is true. That way freedom of speech has potential to be compromised and dominant political forces are given a tool to cover up their misdoings.

So, one obvious conclusion we can draw from the Malaysian example is that it is impossible to go too far in trying to think about information regulation (and political information is certainly the most desperate case) without facing a tradeoff between unlimited free speech and rules that can generate serious conflicts of interest through unclear criteria.

It certainly is the case that the problems of excessive regulation are balanced with enough scary possibilities that absent or insufficient regulation can give to those with the wrong intentions. Just think about the 2016 US presidential election. It is extraordinary how it could even be possible for external forces to significantly manipulate its outcome. In many instances massive political advertisement campaigns on social networks were paid for in Russian rubles, and nobody really noticed until after everything happened.

In Italy political communication is disciplined by law n. 28/2000, that is based on the principle of the par condicio, basically stating that political communication should be equitable and balanced (all parties should be given equal medial exposure) and introduces a set rules that should make sure that the par condicio is respected. For example, it is forbidden to publish results of polls in the fifteen days preceding the election, in order not to distort the result of the election (art. 8), and political communication can only take place in certain specified forms. Despite the law solving multiple problems, many critical issues remain, including those concerning the relationship with the financing of public parties.

As we try to explain political results that may seem unexpected or absurd to some (Trump, Brexit and Movimento 5 Stelle, just to mention the most talked about) we often talk about political communication, how its different forms should be regulated, how we live in a post-truth world and how people who spread fake news should be put in jail or sentenced to death. The question is certainly too complex to be solved in a short article, but as the ways in which information spreads evolve in unknown directions and new problems emerge, current legislation will also stop being a satisfactory solution and policy makers will surely have to start thinking about what to do fast.

 

Bibliography

  • As Malaysia Moves to Ban ‘Fake News,’ Worries About Who Decides the Truth, The New York Times, April 3, 2018
  • Fake news flourishes when partisan audiences crave it, The Economist, April 5, 2018
  • Legge 22 Febbraio 2000, n. 28 “Disposizioni per la parità di accesso ai mezzi di informazione durante le campagne elettorali e referendarie e per la comunicazione politica”

 

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