In August, the Indonesian police paraded three hooded suspects in front of cameras, with evidence of their crimes laid out on a table in front of them marked “Hate Speech.” Top politicians and many others in the world’s largest Muslim country have been targeted with harassment and disinformation often designed to raise religious tensions, and the government says an organized crime ring called Saracen is behind it all.
Governments around the world are scrambling to combat influential online trolls and purveyors of fake news. In the U.S., investigators are still trying to get to the bottom of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, with Facebook and Twitter under increasing scrutiny. But as President Donald Trump deploys the fake news epithet against critical but legitimate stories, other more repressive governments have taken notice — and taken actions that could trample free speech.
The problem is a thorny one for governments, journalists and free speech advocates. Deliberate misinformation and online harassment spreads faster than ever, and can have intensely destabilizing effects. Some governments wield a heavier hand. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s government recently stepped up penalties for the spreading of false information. It’s not a move to break up a crime network, but rather a club to use on the news media, according to University of the Philippines professor Roland Simbulan. Duterte has battled political and media foes over his aggressive prosecution of the drug war — with thousands of extrajudicial killings by police and vigilantes — and attempts to improve the image of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship.
Cambodia strongman Hun Sen, who has praised Trump’s attacks on the media, this year brought about the demise of an independent American-owned newspaper by saddling it with an unpayable tax bill and shuttered at least 19 radio stations. Malaysia recently raised the prospect of government registration for high-traffic websites — which press-freedom advocates say is a precursor to stiff legal action. Its prime minister, Najib Razak, has targeted journalists for reporting on a scandal involving Razak’s alleged pilfering of money from a state development fund. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who jailed or exiled 100 journalists in a vast press crackdown after he survived a military coup last year, praised Trump this year for putting a CNN reporter “in his place” during a news conference.
Even Germany took flak from free speech advocates after it recently passed a law requiring Facebook and other tech platforms to delete hate speech within 24 hours or expect large fines. The United Kingdom’s parliament launched an inquiry into fake news this year, though it’s unclear what shape government action could take there.
Let’s help. We have a part to play in this. Don’t believe everything you read on the web and if it sounds phony, question it or search for other sources to verify it. If it is truly unreal, don’t spread it which serves to make the problem worse. To forward something you read is easy, the tricky part is to ensure that whatever you forward is real.