Although false stories have existed for quite some time, the amount of erroneous and intentionally misleading news stories has risen in recent years, largely due to the number of social media platforms that exist on the internet today. As such, some governments have begun to consider implementing laws that require these platforms to remove offensive or illegal content, while others like Germany, have already enacted said laws (Faiola & Kirchner, 2017). Although the use of legislative and executive power may seem warranted in fighting the spread of false stories, government censorship of online fake news is an infringement upon the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
While fake news is typically fabricated stories and news that intentionally misrepresent reality, some governments, as in the case of Germany, have chosen to broaden their definitions of fake news (Faiola & Kirchner, 2017). The fact that Germany’s new law requires social media companies to remove “content found to be offensive or illegal […], on the basis of a decision by the competent public administrative body, supervised by the federal government” (EU, 2018), is a disregard for the right to freedom of opinion and expression as stated in article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN, 1948), because it is in this case the government’s prerogative to decide on the legality of articles, as the law does not offer a clear definition of fake news. Seeing that article 19 also includes the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media” (UN, 1948), government censorship of fake news on the internet infringes upon these rights, since the act of distributing information is a human right, much as the right to read said information.
Although human rights should always be considered in cases of government censorship, a judicial response to fake news, especially those inciting hatred and violence, is warranted. An example of the potential sociopolitical ramifications of fake news, is the instance where a fake story in Germany alleged that asylum seekers had raped a German girl with Russian descent, and this story was then repeated by high-level Russian officials (Faiola & Kirchner, 2017). The fact that stories that actively encourage hatred can have such potential to influence public figures, does rationalize some governments’ desire to censor fake news on the internet.
As is now clear, however, the dangers in violating article 19 (UN, 1948), lie in the difficulties in clarifying the defining characteristics of fake news, as in the case of Germany. Furthermore, it is every democratic government’s responsibility to maintain and advance its state’s democratic principles (Henley, 2018), and as these typically include the right to freedom of opinion and expression, no law should be implemented, that threatens to violate them.
While using Germany’s new social media law as an example, this paper has discussed the potential human rights implications of government censorship of fake news, by referring to the UN’s UDHR. Even though sociopolitical issues may sometimes arise because of these freedoms, policy changes should be aimed at educating the public on social issues, and not at silencing political voices.
Faiola, A. & Kirchner, S. (2017, April 5) How do you stop fake news? In Germany, with a law. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/how-do-you-stop-fake-news-in-germany-with-a-law/2017/04/05/e6834ad6-1a08-11e7-bcc2-7d1a0973e7b2_story.html?utm_term=.286960a2381d
Henley, J. (2018, April 24) Global crackdown on fake news raises censorship concerns. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/apr/24/global-crackdown-on-fake-news-raises-censorship-concerns
The European Union. (2018, January 15). Parliamentary Questions. Retrieved from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/P-8-2018-000206_EN.html?redirect
The United Nations. (1948, December 10). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
About the author:
Kaza Christian Boneza is currently a student in European studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), and has a special interest in the major powers’ interests in, and interactions with African governments.