Fake News Or Censorship? The Nuanced Disinformation Battle

In a week that has been dominated by the tech giants taking steps to remove accounts that were critical of the Hong Kong protest movement, it is timely to see the release of a report compiled by BBC Monitoring's Disinformation Team for The Oxford Technology and Elections Commission.

For anyone who wants a country-by-country insight into what is going on in the fight against disinformation, it is definitely one to bookmark.

For anyone who wants the quick view it is pretty simple. Tackling fake news is complicated -- very complicated. Different countries are trying a variety of measures, but the same old issue crops up.

If a government is overseeing any form of copy approval, to weed out disinformation, it is immediately accused of censorship. This is due to the fundamental question of when a report is fake news and when it is just a counter argument to an official line.

Germany has had this exact issue. It has come up with what is widely regarded as a sensible solution. The big platforms are given 24 hours to remove hate speech and misinformation. The problem is that this has led to even government ministers seeing their posts taken down amid a flurry of complaints.

One can see the tech platform's point of view. With so many complaints and just 24 hours, it is probably safer to err on the side of taking posts down than to risk a fine while debating the finer points of what is misinformation and what is a rival view.

The result in Germany is lawmakers agreeing that the legislation is too tight and they are currently considering relaxing it. 

The Netherlands appears to have gone for a more light-touch approach, relying on educating web users about the pitfalls of fake news and how to spot it. However, the researchers of today's report point out that this still leaves a significant proportion of Dutch web users open to receiving misinformation -- particularly from Russian sources.

Ironically, the countries that might need fake news tackling the most are those where it is believed the misinformation comes from the government itself. The researchers point out that Hungary and Turkey should be doing far more, but the governments are not inclined to act because the biggest sources of spreading fake news are media outlets praising the authoritarian government.

China is in a league of its own. According to today's research, not only does its government clamp down on any media report or social post that does not praise the executive branch, it floods neighbouring territories -- particularly Taiwan -- with pro-Beijing information that also criticises local leaders. The same is now believed to be true of China's response to the Hong Kong protestors. 

Google shut down 210 YouTube accounts this week to combat fake news on the demonstrations. But as the BBC points out, unlike Facebook and Twitter -- which have both taken similar action -- it stopped short of accusing China of being behind the accounts. 

And therein lies the rub. The people who don't want to insult the Chinese government are the very same tech platforms that must guard against the country's misinformation machine.

So there's no real answer here -- just a nod to how difficult tackling disinformation truly is. Anyone who needs a few arguments to make this point would be well advised to look at the report to weigh conflicting ideals.

On the one hand, it makes sense to tackle fake news -- but as soon as this is done, the accusation of censorship arises. Try to educate your way around it and the fake news just keeps flowing anyway.

As with any issue, the extremes are probably easier to spot than the grey areas where a fact or event is disputed or there is a debate over whether a contrary opinion to an official line is valid commentary or illegal deceit.

There are no firm answers now in this grey zone, just lots of questions. 

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