The Witch Hunt For Fake News Is Threatening Alternative Media

The crackdown on fake news websites could have dire consequences for free speech with alternative news sources being flagged as untrustworthy.

Ever since a now-discredited article from The Washington Post blacklisted 200 news sources as "fake news" from Russia, Americans have been panicking about false news stories.

Facebook and Google vowed to crack down on fake news after many claimed that dishonest reporting had swayed the results of the U.S. presidential election. Craig Silverman of BuzzFeed even proved that fake news was outperforming real news on Facebook toward the end of the election. 

In a Facebook post, CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed their new plan to stop fake news from proliferating.

"We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news," Zuckerberg said, "and there is more we can do here. We have made progress, and we will continue to work on this to improve further."

The post left a lot of questions open. How much power will individual Facebook users have over something being declared "fake?" What are the pros and cons of potentially leaving those decisions in the hands of "trolls" who might flag legitimate sites?

The Washington Post story, written using information gleaned from an unknown group or person at the website Prop Or Not, blacklisted scores of news sites based on extremely shoddy criteria. The list flagged any news site that had "behavioral" indicators that it was connected to Russia, meaning a site that published a single story that coincided with a Russian stance could be flagged as fake.

In a KPFA Flashpoints radio interview, Bob Parry explained how Consortium News had been blacklisted by Prop Or Not and voiced concern that the further restrictions on fake news online could be used to weed out alternative and independent news. The fallout was so devastating to the reputations of these news outlets, some are considering suing for libel.

Parry elaborated on the issue in an article at Consortium News, saying, "The Post granted the group and its leadership anonymity to smear journalists who don’t march in lockstep with official pronouncements from the State Department or some other impeccable fount of never-to-be-questioned truth."

Max Blumenthal of AlterNet also voiced concern, saying that "insiders have latched onto a McCarthyite campaign that calls for government investigations of a wide array of alternative media outlets."

With Donald Trump decrying the media at every turn, and the establishment Democrats blaming fake news for their woes, it is extremely worrying to see increasing oversight over alternative news sources.

The only reason the fake news debacle got so out of hand in the first place is a clear lack of accountability on the part of readers. With a gunman targeting a pizzeria over a Clinton child sex conspiracy, and a woman threatening the parent of a Sandy Hook victim over a gun rights conspiracy theory, it is obvious people need to be thinking more critically about what they read on the internet.

It's not enough to read a headline and share. It's often not even enough to read an article before sharing; citations need to be checked, sources examined.

As long as we try to pawn off responsibility for what news we trust, we are going to continue to fall victim to fake news. This begs the question of the effectiveness of Facebook's new plan to have users flag fake news, essentially choosing what we read. Blumenthal's fears seem legitimate given the public attitude toward news media after so many talking heads on TV — especially Trump — have decried the state of journalism.

It seems likely that the proposal could create an opportunity for the government — and the public — to censor opinions that they don't like, and to undermine free speech online. And alternative, independent news sites which don't toe the government line could be the first to go. 

Banner Image Credit: Twitter, @CNN

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