In George Orwell’s seminal novel 1984 the Ministry of Truth is the government ‘s propaganda ministry, responsible for disseminating information to the public and used to spread lies about news and history. Citizens of the super-state Oceania are not supposed to question the information given to them, but today, in the real world, lies in the media is a problem which requires us to be vigilant: so-called “fake news” is being accused of distorting the public’s view of current events and even deciding elections. Never shy of proposing a government solution to any problem, politicians across the globe are therefore scrambling to protect us from having to decide what to believe or not.
So, on December 8, the US Senate passed the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, which, according to bill co-sponsor Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, “will improve the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation […] to coordinate and synchronize counter-propaganda efforts throughout the U.S. government.” The law allocates $160 million over two years to things such as supporting “local independent media to refute foreign disinformation and manipulation in their communities.” If that looks very much like a bribe to print the information the government wants, then that’s because that is exactly what it is.
And the US is not the only country looking to exercise state control over information. The Germans are planning a law that would impose fines of up to €500,000 on social media companies for distributing fake news; it remains to be seen how the government will set about deciding what is fake or not. And the head of the Italian competition body, Giovanni Pitruzzella, is advocating that all EU countries should set up coordinated agencies which could label false news and remove it from circulation.
Of course disinformation is problematic and should be addressed, and social media, where the problem is seen to be most significant (nearly half of US adults get their news on Facebook), is reacting. Facebook is launching several efforts to combat false news, including methods for stronger detection and verification, and providing warning labels on potential fake content. But politicians are not interested. “It is not the job of a private entity to control information,” Mr Pitruzzella told the FT in a recent interview, explicitly calling for governments to be given the role of controlling what news is available to the public. Under the pretext of protecting the public from false news, these new government agencies are to be given power to remove information from the public domain which they deem harmful to the public interest – but of course that is nothing other than a propaganda body, taking government directions as to what news is printable and what needs to be suppressed.
Advocates of government news surveillance argue that the only current way to combat fake news is through the courts, and that this is too slow and expensive. But as we have previously discussed, libel laws are already surplus to requirements and there is no need for courts to get involved in deciding if information is true or false in the first place.
We have already seen beginnings of the Orwellian surveillance state, most damagingly exposed by Edward Snowden’s leak of NSA files showing how both the US and European governments are spying on their citizens. Governments have used the threat of terrorism as an excuse to tap citizens’ phones and read their emails, and now the false news paranoia is setting the stage for them to take it upon themselves to decide what news we can read. Under the pretext of protecting us, politicians and bureaucrats are taking our freedoms away, step by step, and it is happening without much public debate. They need to be stopped before we wake up in 1984.