A Philosopher's Blog

Fake News IV: The Role of the State

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 9, 2016

While there has been considerable speculation about the impact of fake news on the election, the recent incident at Comet Ping Pong Pizza shows that fake news can cause real harm. Since one duty of the state is to protect citizens from harm, this leads to the matter of the proper role of the state in regards to fake news.

While people typically base their beliefs about a policy on how they feel, such matters need to be approached based on the consistent application of a principle about what the state should or should not do. “The state should do what I want and not do what I do not want” is no more adequate as a principle of policy than it would be as a principle of law. As such, a proper principle is needed.

Starting with the assumption that the state has a responsibility to protect citizens from harm, it follows that a key part of the principle would be based on this responsibility. The challenge is sorting out whether the harms inflicted by fake news fall under this responsibility.

One reasonable way to approach this is to consider the significance of the harms. As a practical matter, the state cannot afford to expend its resources protecting citizens from all the minor harms. As such, the harms caused by fake news would need to be significant enough to cross this practical threshold. There are two clear points of dispute here. One is the threshold for state involvement in protecting citizens. The other is whether fake news meets that threshold.

As noted above, some claim the fake news impacted the election, perhaps causing Trump’s victory. The manipulation of voters through lies does seem like a significant harm to the citizens who were robbed of an honest decision. The easy counter to this is that politicians often win by lying and these lies are not regarded as falling under the compulsive power of the state. This could be objected to by saying that such lies should be forbidden, but this goes beyond the scope of this short essay.

The Comet Ping Pong Pizza incident does serve as single example of the harm fake news can do—a person who believes a fake story might decide to engage in criminal activity based on that fake news. The easy counter to this is that one incident, even if it is vivid, does not suffice to show that there is a threat of significant harm. It could be countered that even one incident is too many and that the state must step in to protect the citizens.

The response to this is that the incident does not seem serious enough to warrant general state action against fake news and there is the obvious concern about whether there will even be other incidents. The state should only use its coercive power to the degree the harms are significant and likely to occur.

The fact that this matter involves the freedom of expression also complicates things. If the state were to create the machinery to control fake news, this would set a precedent for the gradual expansion of this power. After all, the state tends to expand its powers rather than curtail them. It is easy enough to imagine the control of fake news expanding outward from factual untruths to include matters of ideology. While this slide is not guaranteed, such expansions of power into the realm of basic liberty need to be regarded with due concern. While I am worried about fake news, I do not think it is yet significant enough to justify using the coercive power of the state. There are some obvious exceptions, such as when fake news breaks existing laws (such as libel or slander laws).

But, suppose that the harms of fake news are significant enough to warrant the attention of the state even in the face of the freedom of expression. While this would be a step towards justifying the use of the coercive power of the state, there is still another point of consideration. This is the matter of whether citizens and non-government organizations are unwilling or unable to effectively address the problem. If citizens can adequately address the harms without the state using its coercive power, then it is preferable to have the state remain uninvolved. For example, a couple that is involved in an emotional disaster of a relationship can be suffering considerable harm, but that should be handled by the couple or other people whose help they request (if it does not escalate to actual violence).

Fake news, I contend, can be adequately handled by citizens and non-government organizations. Individuals can take some basic efforts to be more critical of the news, thus protecting themselves from the harms without the state getting involved. Fake news is not like a foreign invader or deadly disease that is beyond the power of the citizens to defend themselves—it is well within their power to do so, if only they would take a little effort to be informed and critical.

Non-government organizations can also counter fake news (and are already doing so).  For example, the real news companies and the fact checkers have been fighting fake news. Companies like Facebook and Google that enable the monetization of fake news can also do a great deal to combat it. While there are clearly concerns about such control of the news, policing of the news is something that the existing networks do. As such, expecting Facebook to accept some basic responsibility for what it profits from is not unreasonable and is already standard practice in traditional news media. This is not to say that concerns about the policies of media companies are irrelevant, just that the fake news does not really create a new situation—all media companies already have policies regarding the news.

In light of the above discussion, the state should not use its coercive power to control fake news. My position is contingent on the facts—should fake news prove to be a significant harm that citizens and non-government organizations are unwilling or unable to counter, then the state could be justified in stepping in.


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 9, 2016 at 8:39 am

    “Today, the military is more focused on manipulating news and commentary on the Internet, especially social media, by posting material and images without necessarily claiming ownership,” reported the [Washington] Post…” Read more: U.S. Repeals Propaganda Ban, Spreads Government-Made News to Americans http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/07/14/u-s-repeals-propaganda-ban-spreads-government-made-news-to-americans/

  2. WTP said, on December 9, 2016 at 10:58 am

    Christ, four posts on this nonsense. It must be deafening inside that echo chamber. Here’s a thought…how about some discussion of Fake Education. It’s putting young people deep into debt, feeding on their naivety and exploiting their vulnerabilities with feel-good, snowflake majors. Or electives that are so easy they don’t even need to go to class. They pay for basically nothing but hey, keeps a roof over “professors” heads. Or is that idea hitting too close to home?

  3. nailheadtom said, on December 9, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Comet Ping Pong Pizza: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2016/12/07/belleville-woman-helped-cook-up-pizzagate.html

    “Starting with the assumption that the state has a responsibility to protect citizens from harm”

    Why would anyone make that assumption? “Harm” is very broad concept. The neighbor’s leaves on my lawn could be harm. Then there’s potential harm, like a person driving around with a blood alcohol content of .07. But let’s not worry about an abstinent driver with a 150 lb German shepherd cavorting beside him on the front seat. The state’s responsibility is to keep armed aliens from over-running the fruited plain, not censoring the content of print and electronic media.

    The reality is that “fake news” has become a new talking point with a dual purpose. The objects of any information that they consider derogatory can call it “fake news” with the intention of dismissing it. A similar tactic was common in the Clinton camp when unfavorable revelations were described as “old news”. Ergo an engineered windfall from cattle futures wasn’t important because it had occurred prior to the expiration of some ethical statute of limitations. Positive information from the other side can also be described as “fake news”. This was the case with the Obama tribe’s trumpeting of job creation being regarded as selective use of statistics by their opposition.

    Evidently, the perpetual use of the all-purpose “racism” appellation isn’t quite as effective as it once was. The unimaginative herd that churns out this stuff has collectively grabbed the new “fake news” meme like it is truly new, when it’s just what it’s always been, propaganda.

  4. WTP said, on December 9, 2016 at 7:53 pm

    More fake news, mike. Or perhaps the reporter got a fake education in journalism…

    Newsweek Writer Kurt Eichenwald Falsely Reports That Trump Supporters Booed John Glenn
    by Alex Griswold | 10:05 am, December 9th, 2016475

    Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald came under fire Thursday after sending a tweet that incorrectly reported that Iowa supporters of president-elect Donald Trump booed astronaut and former senator John Glenn when informed of his recent passing.

    Eichenwald’s initial tweet (which has since been deleted) racked up thousands of retweets and likes in a short time.

    When asked why they might have booed, he speculated that it was because Glenn was a Democrat.

    But notice the interesting tidbit, that Trump said “maybe they’ll come around.” According to other reports on the ground, Trump said this while his supporters were booing protesters.

    Sure enough, Eichenwald admitted that he had gotten the story wrong (although his admission didn’t receive nearly as much attention as the initial tweet).

    I believe I was in error that Trump supporters booed Glenn. This seems to be 2 events at same time: Ppl booing Trump as he mentions Glenn. — Kurt Eichenwald (@kurteichenwald) December 9, 2016


    Because of course, Trump supports are so anti-American that they would boo a was and space hero. Unlike the noble and sainted democrats. They never ever do such things. Ever.

  5. WTP said, on December 10, 2016 at 9:39 am

    More on the fascinating subject of fake education…

    Like many Americans, Olga Perez Stable Cox has strong feelings about the outcome of this year’s presidential election.

    Unlike many Americans, her job offers the convenience of a captive audience with whom she can share those feelings.

    Cox, a professor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., did exactly that days after the election while standing in front of her students in a class — unleashing a multi-minute, hyperbole-filled harangue in which she called Donald Trump’s election an “act of terrorism,” referred to the president-elect as a “white supremacist” and said “we have been assaulted.”

    Cox — a psychology professor who teaches a class on human sexuality — referred to Vice President-elect Mike Pence as “one of the most anti-gay humans in the country.” She also told her students that the nation is as divided now as it was “in Civil War times.”


    Of course it being from the Washinton Post, maybe it is fake news?

  6. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 10, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    The Real Dangers of Fake News! Photo of Fake ‘Happy Hour Playset’ Sparks Online Outrage http://www.nbcwashington.com/entertainment/the-scene/Outrage-Sparked-on-Social-Media-Over-Fake-Baby-Bar-Product–405420875.html

  7. WTP said, on December 10, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    Ooh…here’s some fake news…Trump is going to put Muslims in concentration camps just like that other Republican FDR did during WWII. I mean it’s not a child sex ring…but perhaps it could become one!

    Monday’s New Day on CNN ran a pre-recorded report by correspondent Kyung Lah in which she highlighted two Japanese-American women who suffered through living in internment camps during World War II, and touted their concerns that Donald Trump “could make a dark moment in history a reality again,” this time targeting Muslims.

    And the report not only again used a misleading edited clip of incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn which made it look like he was calling all of Islam a “cancer,” but the piece also employed a new misleading edit in the form of Trump supporter Carl Higbie appearing to argue in favor of treating Muslim-Americans the same as Japanese-Americans of the 1940s, which could easily be misconstrued as a call for internment camps. But, in other portions not shown by CNN, it could clearly be seen that he flatly argued against internment camps but for a registry that would only include immigrants.


  8. DH said, on December 12, 2016 at 9:08 am

    The question you are asking is, “Does democracy work, or are the freedoms that are Constitutionally protected in this country a bad idea?”

    Nowhere in the Constitution is it stated or implied that the State has an obligation to protect citizens from harm, except from invasion. Rather, the implication is that the State itself bears with it the greatest potential for bringing harm to the citizens, therefore the document concerns itself with limitiations. As Obama complains, it is a document of negative liberties – one that says what the government is not allowed to do to you, but not what the government is obligated to do on your behalf. To those of us who oppose that sort of thinking, that is the beauty of the document.

    If you are going to look at the press – and ask whether or not the state has an obligation to limit the press because it is bringing people harm, you must also look at some of the other freedoms we have. Religion, for example. Can it be argued that as a result of Christian beliefs, young women are harmed by not being allowed to seek abortions, therefore the State has an obligation to put limits on Christian beliefs? Or because some Muslim extremists would don explosive vests or bring rifles to malls, should Islam be outlawed?

    What about the fourth amendment – protection against unreasonable search and seizure? Surely if the state believes that there are drugs or firearms in someone’s home, they have an obligation to step in, don’t they? We should not have to worry about some Constitutionalist judge refusing to sign a warrant if we’re sure in our hearts, should we?

    “Fake News” has been around for centuries. Anyone who has been to a grocery store knows this. If the State puts themselves in the business of deciding what is true and what is not – and what is allowable or not, it is a slippery slope from which there will be no return.

    I think that the blame for Edgar Maddison Welch going to Comet Ping Pong lies in Edgar Maddison Welch, not the Internet. Of course, I’m also one of those nuts who believe that gun violence is caused by people, not guns, and that violent crime would not abate if guns were outlawed.

    Ben Franklin, at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, was asked, “Well, doctor, what do we have, a Monarchy or a Republic?” His answer, “A Republic, if you can keep it”.

    This is one of those times that that question comes up.

  9. Joe Postove said, on December 12, 2016 at 10:28 am

    How do you define “fake’ news. Rumors, lies, half-truths could all fall under this label. The First Amendment is clear about freedom of expression “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. No law to me, means no law.

    As to the issue of harm done by such “fake news” agencies, the warrant that the government is issued by the constitution to guarantee individual rights against the state is intended to protect life, liberty and property, not bad sport, or mean people who “harm us”. The United States government would have no constitutional jurisdiction in the matter of “fake news”.

    Except fraud, which is handled on a state level, and is a derivative of force. If a bad actor uses “fake” news to cause someone to expend his time, energy or money in pursuit of something said or written, then there may be cause for action taken by the offended party, in court.

    Other than that, those who propose coming now for “fake” news are just among those in line who want to regulate all forms of expression.

    We should watch for them.

    • WTP said, on December 12, 2016 at 5:10 pm

      We should watch for them

      Even better, we should stop supporting/subsidizing them.

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