Russia Moves to Ban “Fake News”

February 15, 2019

“Fake news” is deliberate disinformation spread throughout traditional mass media. It is a relatively popular term that garnered major usage among Americans around 2017, when Donald Trump often used it to describe major news outlets. But to be honest, I had never heard the phrase before the president began using it. I was surprised to discover the history of “fake news” dates all the way back to ancient times. One of the earliest instances of fake news involves Ramses, the Pharaoh of Egypt from 1279-1300, was discovered to have used cave drawings and inscriptions to inflate his ego as great war hero, although he was primarily known for his contributions to architecture.

The rise in awareness of fake news led researchers to gather more information about the effects of disinformation on the controversial election of Donald Trump. On January 31, Twitter announced that it removed 418 Russian accounts suspected of spreading fake news concerning the 2018 United States elections.

In the digital age… it can be difficult to notice when a story is for entertainment purposes rather than information purposes.

Now, Russia’s lower house of the Parliament has just approved the first version of a bill that would outlaw Russian citizens and legal entities from posting stories that are “a threat to an individual’s life or health or… capable of causing large-scale social disorder.” The bill would impose up to a $15,000 fine for each instance of spreading disinformation, and any “indecent” stories about the Russian government could lead to 15 days of administrative arrest. The purpose of the Russian bill is to “reaffirm legal guarantees against the abuse of the freedom of speech, which may pose a threat to state and public security.”

Certainly, this may sound absurd to anyone who is familiar with the concept of free speech. But this bill would not be the first in the world to limit fake news: France, Belarus, Kenya, China, and Cambodia all have similar laws already in effect.

As more and more people stay up to date with what’s happening in the world by use of social media, there needs to be a way to limit the spread of disinformation, as almost any human being with an electronic device can use these medias. It seems practically impossible for Facebook or Twitter to remove every account that ever posted purposely misleading information. There are accounts that post exclusively satirical content (like The Onion), and many individuals occasionally post humorous and sarcastic stories about current events. In the digital age, most stories do not allow for normal social cues (like inflection of the voice or an eye roll), and it can be difficult to notice when a story is for entertainment purposes rather than information purposes.

Without a disclaimer, many readers of an online news story could be convinced of almost anything if the platform on which they read it seemed legitimate enough. And unfortunately, there are people in the world who are admittedly clever and diabolical enough to create a counterfeit news website with the look and feel of the New York Times online. The potential for problems like this highlights the need for some regulation of fake news – but where is the line drawn when many people around the world presume some guaranteed level of free speech? Governments always seem to think that hefty fines and potential jail time will deter any type of crime. But just like speeding, illegal drug use, and online torrenting – surely, this potential penalty won’t stand between the Russian people and their desire to exercise their freedom of speech, legal or not.

Zan Newkirk, 4 February 2019