Fake news and rigged elections: moral panic or threat to democracy?

Saturday 18 November, 11:0012:15, Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, StockholmBattle of Ideas Europe

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This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Stockholm.

From Donald Trump to Angela Merkel, everyone is obsessed with fake news. The term caught on during last year’s US election, but was catapulted to prominence in Sweden when Trump, speaking at a campaign-style rally in Florida, appeared to back up his argument against migration by inventing a terrorist attack in Sweden.  The furore that followed saw US President ridiculed, as the hashtag #lastnightinSweden trended on Twitter while ex-prime minister Carl Bildt retorted ‘Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking?’. Since then, concerns have grown with a survey by pollsters Ipsos showing that eight out of ten Swedes think fake news is having an impact on their perception of basic facts, prompting King Carl XVI Gustaf to emphasise the importance of ‘serious’ media and checking sources. Several local daily Swedish newspapers including Dalarnas Tidningar, Hallpressen and Västerbottens-Kuriren decided against publishing April Fools’ Day jokes. Education minister Gustav Fridolin declared that schools will teach kids how to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources, even recruiting longstanding comic hero Bamse to the cause.

But how much of a problem is fake news?  Some critics suggest that the term is used not only about blatantly made-up stories, but also merely partisan claims that would previously have warranted a counter-argument. Should we be more discerning about what is and isn’t labelled fake news, or is the very concept flawed?  National elections have supposedly been won and lost as a result of nonsense news circulating on Facebook. Google wants the power to filter out search results it decides to be fake. Even the security services describe fake news as a ‘threat to democracy’ with Swedish Security Service issuing a report in 2015 identifying propaganda from Russia infiltrating Sweden. But critics argue that the fake news panic isn’t really be about fake news at all, so much as it is about the ordinary ‘suckers’ who fall for it.

Meanwhile, the legal and ethical implications of a fake news crackdown are manifold. For example information freedom watchdogs, such as Reporters Without Borders, warned in March 2017 that Trump’s statements could set a ‘dangerous example for the world’s press freedom predators’ who see the notion of ‘fake news’ as justification to criminalise critical media. Who decides what news is fake? What should we do about it?  Where do the lines between satire and fabrication blur? How do you sue anonymous news sites for libel? Or is this entire fake news panic just a malicious fabrication itself, designed to undermine the demos and expand elites’ powers to muzzle the media? Is fake news fake news?