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Elliott: Government regulation isn’t appropriate solution to fake news

Jackson Elliott, Op-Ed Contributor

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“Fake news” is a phrase that has become increasingly common since the 2016 presidential election. Interestingly, it’s a term that has been enthusiastically taken up and used by both sides of the political spectrum. Some say fake news paved the way for President Donald Trump’s election by feeding disinformation to the public, while others argue the mainstream media spouts fake news when heavily criticizing Trump’s actions or claims.

Although often agreeing on little else, people on both sides of the debate support government action against fake news. Last month on Twitter, Trump said “network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked.” On the other side, MSNBC’s chief legal correspondent, Ari Melber, said the Federal Trade Commission could be used to fight false stories.

As a journalist myself, I find both statements are disturbing. Though national media networks do not have “licenses” that can be removed, the sentiment of Trump’s statement is clear:
Upholding the free speech of his critics and detractors is not a high priority. Similarly, it shocks me that a professional journalist like Melber would seemingly want a government institution to decide what stories can be distributed, and which ones should be suppressed, no matter how false they may be.

Many argue the government has to intervene to stop fake news because it deceives so many people. For example, according to a BuzzFeed analysis, fake election news was engaged with more often on Facebook than news from legitimate outlets in the last three months of the presidential campaign. What we perceive as the truth has a huge influence on how we interact with the world and our perception of events. If people are making decisions based on false understandings, it would seem to be in everyone’s best interest for the government to intervene and keep people informed of the truth. After all, we let the Food and Drug Administration hold companies accountable for the content of their products to protect consumers, and part of the Federal Trade Commission’s mission is to “protect consumers by preventing anticompetitive, deceptive, and unfair business practices.” As Melber argues, why should the media be completely exempt from this type of enforcement?

The answer is simple: The power to suppress fake news becomes the power to suppress all news. When the government decides what news to regulate or remove, it gains the ability to decide what constitutes as “fake news.” The government could decide that any site or publication that critiques them is “fake news” and censor them.

This is why giving the government greater power and responsibility to regulate media seems like such a dangerous idea. If there is one thing we know about regulatory power, it is that it can be misused. Even the IRS has faced scrutiny for applying extra screening to Tea Party nonprofit groups in the 2012 election. The IRS has admitted as much this year, and apologized for their actions. If the tax code can be used to target groups based on their political leaning, an institution devoted to regulating speech across all media platforms could be the ultimate political weapon.

The power to suppress lies is the same power that can be used to suppress truth. If the government gains such a power, it seems like only a matter of time until it is used for political reasons. If and when government institutions begin doing so, we would face one of the biggest scandals in U.S. history. And there wouldn’t be a single story in the news about it.

Jackson Elliott is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at jacksonelliott2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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