Laws to fight fake news can create other problems

All over the world, governments are proposing strict regulations to tackle the problem of fake news (Support for laws against fake news: Reach survey; March 27).

The moves that are being proposed are alarming on two levels.

First, the media is not just a place where facts are stated. It is also a forum where truth is debated and where truth can and does change with time.

For example, at one time, stating that unwashed doctors' hands caused women to die in childbirth would have been considered fake news.

Similarly, in the early 20th century, the idea that women are capable of voting or working was not accepted by society.

In these cases, anyone challenging the mainstream consensus could have been prosecuted under the countless anti-fake news laws now being considered around the world.

Fake-news laws would have held back social and technological progress.

The second danger is political. Governments could be tempted to label any reporting of embarrassing details as fake news to discredit political opponents.

Evidence of a statement's veracity can be suppressed and an innocent person jailed for merely reporting the truth.

Anti-fake news laws are passed with the best of intentions.

Even so, future generations of politicians could use them to jail or intimidate political opponents who possess embarrassing information.

What then is the solution to fake news?

The answer is a freer, less conformist press. It is not a coincidence that fake news infected the West's media shortly after it consolidated into a handful of multi-national conglomerates.

With less competition and more groupthink, there were fewer voices to challenge the veracity of dubious information.

The real solution is a sceptical, open challenge to all so-called "news", be it real or fake.

Eric J. Brooks

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2018, with the headline 'Laws to fight fake news can create other problems'. Print Edition | Subscribe