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Fake news poses looming threat to free expression

Suzanne Nossel

PEN America’s comprehensive report Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth just released evaluates the array of strategies that Facebook, Google, Twitter, newsrooms, and civil society are undertaking to address the problem, stressing solutions that empower news consumers while vigilantly avoiding new infringements on free speech.

The report argues that even though most “fake news” is protected by the First Amendment, its proliferation creates a flood of disinformation that imperils open expression writ large and demands a concerted response.

“Fake news is mendacious publication gone viral in the digital age,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, who cites the organization’s 1948 Charter which commits PEN to “oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends”.

The report rates the range of fact-checking, algorithmic, educational and standards-based approaches being taken to counter the proliferation of fake news.  It identifies sound methods that merit investment, and sounds a warning bell for tactics that risk suppressing controversial speech, such as giving government new powers to regulate or calling on social media companies to block specific content entirely.

The report was published as tech giants Facebook, Google, and Twitter were being called to Capitol Hill to
testify about how their companies’ platforms and technologies were used by Russia in an effort to sway the 2016 presidential election. Arguing that these companies — which are many Americans’ primary channels for news consumption — must play a critical and transparent role in curbing the spread of false news, the report spells out a series of specific strategies that centre on empowering news consumers with access to fact-checking initiatives and news literacy programs.

[Photo: Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America]