Censorship Won’t Stop Fake News

Singapore is seeking to regulate fake news. For the past five days the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods has held hearings on the issue, inviting experts, academics and media professionals to give oral evidence. Three more days of hearings are scheduled. As Mothership discusses, the thrust of the hearing is pointing towards a raft of legislation to tackle different fake news on multiple platforms.

I expect censorship, in the form of takedown orders, to be part of such proposed legislation. And I think censorship won’t stop fake news.

Irrelevance of Censorship

Blockchain-based social media platforms offer permanent, unalterable publication of content. This makes censorship from external parties impossible.

This technology exists today.

Steemit, of course, is blockchain-based blogging platform. Later this year, Narrative will go online, offering another alternative. Social media site Gab has launched an ICO to support the development of a new decentralized social media architecture that is natively resistant to censorship.

And this is just the start.

While these alternative platforms are still new, I expect that between five to ten years from now, the Internet will make a major shift towards blockchain-based social media as technology improves and users recognize its benefits.

Singapore could conceivably exercise censorship powers on such a platform by threatening to prosecute a user who crosses the unwritten Out of Bounds markers unless he takes down his content. However, on a blockchain-based platform that allows users to view the blockchain’s records and all committed edits, the non-censored content would still be visible–just harder to find. This approach does not erase the content from the Internet forever.

In such a scenario, the government may choose to prosecute the blogger anyway. In the short term, this generates fear of state power, but in the long term it will create anger and resentment. Singapore’s government has previously promised a ‘light touch’ on digital media, and any attempt at arrests and prosecutions will be seen as the government breaking its promise. Moreover, prosecuting the blogger will not stop the propagation of his content–and indeed, when news gets out it would likely trigger a fresh wave of shares and likes and upvotes, spreading the alleged fake news even further.

Regulation and censorship will only work on legacy media with centralised architecture. When pitted a system designed from the ground up to prevent anyone from altering its content–including the platform owners–there is no way to disappear content once it is out in the open.

In other words: regulation targeting content on the Internet, including fake news, will be rendered irrelevant by the end of the next decade.

Between Rhetoric and Lies

The government frames fake news as a threat to national security. Information operations by foreign states are used to sway public opinion or to pave the way for military action, as in the case of Ukraine, while ‘deliberate online falsehoods’ can promote hatred among racial and religious groups in Singapore, resulting in public unrest and disorder.

The government justifies granting itself wide-ranging powers by claiming they are necessary to preserve national security. The national security argument was used to justify the Internal Security Act, which allows the authorities to detain suspects without trial; and it will be used again to justify sweeping legislation to target ‘fake news’. The true purpose is to uphold the political narrative that keeps Singapore going.

Among the core pillars of Singapore’s national identity is that Singapore is a multiracial, multireligious society living in harmony. The narrative posits that anything that disrupts this harmony will lead to mass violence; thus, measures to preserve social stability are justified, necessary and paramount.

The purpose of fake news legislation isn’t to crack down on fake news. It is to preserve social order.

With this statement in mind, consider this image. (Not Safe For Work!)

Shocking? Absolutely.

False? No.

It’s obvious that the cartoon presents an exaggerated image critical of Middle Eastern migrants and European police. But where did this image come from?

It came from no-go zones in France, Germany and Sweden, enforced by Muslim migrant gangs. It came from immigrants being four times more likely to be suspected of homicide and four and a half times more likely to be rape suspects than native-born in Sweden. It came from mass sex attacks in Germany on New Year’s Eve in 2015, a thousand girls raped in Britain, and skyrocketing rape and sexual assaults in Europe by migrants. It came from an Austrian judge overturning the conviction of a rapist because he had a ‘sexual emergency’, the Swedish police covering up the ethnicity of criminals, and a Danish girl prosecutedfor defending herself against a rapist with pepper spray.

This is rhetoric. It speaks to emotions instead of reason. It may be shocking and offensive to its targets. It may present an exaggerated aspect of reality. It may seem false, but it reflects deeper truths and invites the discerning audience to delve deeper.

When faced with speech like this, governments must choose between truth and stability. But if they choose stability, they will soon have neither.

Issuing takedown orders is an easy option to suppress controversial content. But the blowback will come from around the world. The content will be shared on 4chan, Gab, Steemit and other platforms the authorities can’t easily reach. Wanton censorship will turn public opinion against the government.

More to the point: by censoring the truth, the government is merely sweeping the issue under the rug. The underlying problem — in this case Middle Eastern migrants and crime — will continue to fester, until a final inevitable explosion that the state can no longer contain. As the fate of the Soviet Union, socialist Venezuela, communist Romania and every fallen oppressive regime demonstrates, there will come a time when the people, tired of censorship and propaganda, will turn against the state, disrupting the same public order such actions are meant to preserve.

While I have no interested in defending lies, there must always be space for the truth. The purpose of freedom of speech is to allow everyone from the humblest janitor to a captain of the industry to speak the truth for the benefit of all, even and especially if that speech may offend the sensibilities of the ones in power. Freedom of speech necessarily equates to freedom to give offense, for there is no way to avoid offending anyone all the time.

Any fake news legislation that aims to preserve the narrative at the expense of the truth will by its nature undermine the it is supposed to preserve. Given the government’s focus on preserving social order, however, I am certain that fake news legislation will leave no room for rhetoric.

Fake news legislation narrows the space for free speech. Offensive speech, once branded as ‘fake news’, will be treated as a violation of criminal law or national regulations. The truthfulness of said speech will be deemed a secondary concern–or will be considered immaterial. The government will place the preservation of society above all other concerns–and in so doing, it will attempt to seize a monopoly on truth.

How to Handle Fake news

By giving itself the power to define fake news, the government grants itself the power to define the truth. By exercising a monopoly on truth, the government erases or drowns out all competing sources of information — fake news among them — and ensures social stability.

This is a mistaken approach.

Going back to my first point, there now exist Internet platforms that are fundamentally uncensorable, and technology can only improve from here. Takedown orders simply won’t work on a platform that will store all its content forever, and makes all edits and versions visible to the public.

Further, chasing down fake news is expensive. In the blink of an eye, anyone can upload fake news or controversial speech on social media all around the world. The state, however, must spend exponentially more time and money to identify such speech, locate the originator, serve a takedown notice, and enforce the law as necessary — and even then, the content is already out on the wild, and can be propagated through a vast number of bulletin boards, social media platforms, blogs and websites.

Any campaign on fake news generates asymmetrical costs for the state. Any government that tries to crack down on all fake news all the time must declare war on the entire Internet: a ridiculously expensive, time-consuming and futile effort.

The primary answer to fake news is engagement. The government of Singapore has a singular advantage: the perception of credibility, trustworthiness and authority. It boast a reputation that outmatches most Internet trolls. Instead of seeking to censor fake news all the time, the government should instead engage the people, present the truth, and discredit the liars. A press statement is far cheaper than a full-blown investigation and takedown effort, and by opening a dialogue with citizens the government presents itself as more reasonable than a regime that reaches for the ban hammer at its earliest convenience.

There may well be a case for censorship under extraordinary circumstances. These could be deliberate acts of information warfare by a hostile state or terrorist group, or speech that incites to violence. But the benefits of taking down such content must outweigh the costs of doing do–which includes the time and monetary costs of investigating these cases. And, as mentioned above, this is only possible on legacy platforms with mechanisms for permanent content removal.

Technology promises an end to state control of information. At best, censorship is only a temporary solution to fake news. In the not too distant future, censorship-proof platforms will defeat attempts by state and non-state actors to take down content, including fake news. Thus, the only rational long-term solution is to engage the public and dispel fake news with the truth.

Cheah Git San Calligraphy.jpg

Fake news plays a major role in my latest novel, HAMMER OF THE WITCHES. Check it out here.

Censorship Won’t Stop Fake News
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