Observations of an ex pat: Dealing with lies

All politicians lie. That is what we are told anyway. If they told the truth, it is argued,  they would never be elected.

The problem with that belief is that it undermines the very foundations of democracy. If you cannot believe your elected representatives than what is the point in elections? They become no more than expensive political theatre.

It certainly seems that the 21st century political arena is filled with more mendacity than previous years, and the instances of misinformation and disinformation appear to be multiplying. The question is: How to deal with the increasing number of lies before they damage our political institutions beyond repair.

Adam Price, leader of the Welsh Nationalist Party Plaid Cymru thinks he has the answer: Make intentional political lying a criminal offence. That is an interesting idea, but not the right answer.  Hit them where it really hurts–in their bank accounts– by extending the laws of libel to social media.

Winston Churchill is alleged to have said that “a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” In today’s social media world of the internet, trolls, hacks, cyber attacks and 24/7 news, a lie can be orbiting the North Star before truth even thinks of climbing out from under the duvet.

The Internet is the greatest boon to freedom of speech since the Gutenberg press. Billions of people now have access to the greatest body of information at any time in history. But every action has a reaction and they are not always good. Even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has recognised that his digital offspring is a mixed blessing.

There has been talk of regulating social media. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been hauled before parliamentary committees on both sides of the Atlantic and told that he has to find a way of preventing his cash cow digital platform from becoming a vehicle for fake news. He has been told that he should employ tens of thousands of editors to plough through every posting – which run to the 1.62 billion accesses daily–and remove anything that smacks of lies and hate speech. On Twitter there are 500 million daily tweets. Their impact is multiplied by retweets and republication on traditional mainstream media.

But forcing social media giants to police their platforms is not the answer. It is a physical impossibility. And besides, under Section 230 of America’s Communications Decency Law, social media platforms cannot be held liable for postings published on their platforms. And as most of the social media giants are based in the US, American law has become the global standard. But there is another possible solution using libel laws.

Under the libel law in most countries, If you tell a deliberate lie which causes damage to another person or organisation then you can be sued for damages. If the lie is bad enough you may actually go to prison.  Generally speaking the ones who bear the brunt of court action are the media who reproduced the lie. Damages can run into the millions and there is a lucrative industry for libel insurance. The situation is different in the United States where the First Amendment allows the media to say almost anything they want about a person as long as they are judged to be a public figure.

The internet has turned billions into reporters, editors and publishers in their own right. All they have to do is write a blog, a paragraph on Facebook or 280 characters in a Twitter Tweet. They press “send” and their thoughts and beliefs are winging their way to a potential audience the size of which William Randolph Hearst could only dream. Yet—because of Section 230 and similar laws—they bear no responsibility for their musings.

Extend the libel laws to include anyone who uses social media. Make them financially responsible for the consequences of spreading fake news and hate speech. If they are forced to pay damages for irresponsible comments then they will think more than twice before pressing fingers to keyboards.

There is one possible problem—the cloak of anonymity which too many trolls don to hide their identity and protect themselves from retribution.  Here the social media companies can play a role. They cannot check every post, but they can check the identity of every user and insure that they are who they say are.

None of the above is an attack on free speech. It is an attack on the abuse of free speech to insure that free speech and the democratic institutions that it underpins are protected.

* Tom Arms is membership secretary for Tooting Lib Dems. He also broadcasts on foreign affairs for US Radio, regularly contributes to Lib Dem Voice, lectures and is working on a book on Anglo—American relations which is due to be published next year.

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17 Comments

  • mattwardman2000 14th Dec '19 - 9:11am

    I think the main question with this proposal is that surely Libel Law *already* applies to social media.

    Ask Sally Bercow.

    In this country imo we need far less libel law rather than more, and a stronger right to free expression.

    PS Having looked it up I don’t think that is Churchill – far too refined to put “pants” in it unless he was eg speaking to Congress.

  • I like a lot of your points Tom, and while the outright and deliberate lies should be an offence, I think much of the problem comes from the smaller, half-lies, that can be passed off as a misunderstanding, or often raised in the form of questions or opinion.

    I was of the understanding that libel laws already applied to social media, but I remember a case a few years ago where only those accounts with larger follower numbers were pursued for repeating the libel. I believe that was a practical decision to keep things manageable, but also on the grounds that those with higher follower numbers ought to be more responsible.

    Another issue is that a lot of the half-truths are more about creating a distraction than a serious attempt to mislead on a particular point. The very act of trying to counter a particular piece of misinformation means that something more important goes under the radar.

    Sorry if this sounds like I’m throwing cold water on your suggestion, because I do agree with it, and it is something we should support. But we also need to think of a strategy for dealing with the stuff that isn’t ever going to get to court.

  • Checking the identity of every user of social media would have major problems.
    1) Gold mine for authoritarian governments to find out who is criticising them pseudonymously
    2) Potential for identity theft by setting up social media specifically to harvest this
    3) How far would it go? Would I need to send a certified scan of my passport into Lib Dem Voice?
    4) Difficulty of international enforcement. Most big social media companies could get by quite easily without a UK corporate presence, and it would be very difficult to prove that any of their anonymous accounts were actually British. A Great British Firewall would be needed to block the social media sites which didn’t comply.
    All in all, lots of measures which are not particularly Liberal or Democratic. It’s a problem, but this isn’t the solution.

  • “Extend the libel laws to include anyone who uses social media. Make them financially responsible for the consequences of spreading fake news and hate speech.”

    Could you go through some of the ways in which the libel (well defamation) laws don’t currently apply to social media?

  • Innocent Bystander 14th Dec '19 - 10:18am

    A piece that demonstrates impotence rather than a way forward. Zuckerberg was not hauled before the UK parliament. He told them to get stuffed.
    To control the social media giants would require a Chinese style firewall. To demand that every user of the internet can be traced by the “authorities” is serious stuff.
    Finally, one person’s fact is someone else’s lie.
    Here’s one to keep conversations going at the dinner table :-
    Which of the following are terrorists and which freedom fighters?
    Hams, Irgun, PLO, Stern Gang.

  • Only two words are needed to respond to this…

    Alistair Carmichael.

  • Helen Farrell 15th Dec '19 - 7:36am

    Looking at the specific situation of this election/Johnson/Cummings etc I think David Allan Green had it right – that people are lied to because they want to be. Everyone was tired of Brexit and wanted it to be over, even though people knew rationally that it was nonsense, they wanted to believe it.

    So while it’s worthwhile to think about the possible ways of countermanding lies in the future I suspect for the moment it might be more worthwhile posing the question “why do people want to believe this lie?”

    Many times I hear “people will never turn against Brexit because they will blame the EU for everything.”

    Why do people want to believe that? Because they don’t want to think they made a mistake. So rather than spending hours trying to convince people they’re wrong we give them another villain.

    Johnson will deliver his Brexit, we’ll go into transition and everyone settles down for a while. They probably really do think Brexit is over and are very glad of it. And that gives the attack lines.

    “Johnson is using Brexit to attack our farmers.” “Johnson’s Brexit Deal will cause massive increase in red tape” “Johnson’s hopeless negotiating skills make for more delay”

    So we’re not requiring anyone to give up their belief in Brexit, we’re giving them a scenario where they can blame someone other than themselves. So when the messaging comes out about how it’s all the EU’s fault they have an alternative – it isn’t going to work on everyone but it has more chance than just explaining why voters are wrong, again. And voters might WANT to believe it’s Johnson’s fault (plus it’s the truth of course) because it implies that the situation can be changed by voting differently next time. “I was right to vote Brexit – it was going fine until that bugger Johnson messed it up.”

    So while we don’t have the power to change the laws I suggest we look at everything like this. If a lie is really getting traction then look at why people want to believe it. And see if we can present the truth in a way which makes people want to believe that instead.

  • Before we think about enforcing the law, we should deal with the problem that for most people enforcing their rights via the legal system is far too expensive.

  • Tom Arms: “Another could be Boris Johnson claiming that his proposed prorogation of parliament had nothing to do with Brexit. ”

    That’s not a libel, though. It’s untrue, but no-one is personally or as a group defamed by it. Expanding the scope not just to libel but to all untrue statements that are potentially relevant to an election would overwhelm the courts system (and the chances of them being able to rule on more than a tiny fraction of them before the election would be minimal).

    As regards legislative safeguards against authoritarian governments – those authoritarian governments could just repeal those safeguards. Or use their intelligence agencies to steal the data illegally.

    (Extra problem I’ve thought of: what about people who don’t have official ID? Would the Lib Dems introduce free ID cards so that people could join social media?)

  • Ed Shepherd 15th Dec '19 - 1:10pm

    Libel laws already apply to social media. Ask Elon Musk. But enforcing them in the political sphere would be problematic in many ways. E.g. Barak Obama published his birth certificate to show where he was born. No doubt he knew it would have been a big mistake to have tried to bring a legal action against countless conspiracy theorists.
    But the most damaging lies in British politics had nothing to do with social media. Almost all of them were made in print or spoken in Parliament. Almost none of them would have been defamatory in law.

  • That’s a very fair point Tom.

    How do individuals, or political parties, go about taking a libel case to court? Money is a huge obstacle, which applies for all aspects of life, not just politics. This needs attention.

    But time is another factor, which is particularly relevant in an election scenario. How do you stop the lie from doing damage in a timely fashion? There is of course the “Streisand Effect” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect), whereby the legal challenge brings more attention to something, and when I did media training I was advised never to repeat the allegation, because even in denying something, you can make it seem plausible.

    Clearly, not all rules apply to all situations, and I suppose the purpose of taking libel action is not to stop that particular lie, but to prevent further lies. I think that’s why I was hopeful that the “Led By Donkeys” campaign might make a difference, and I like to think it did, but the scale of lying is now huge and some people don’t care, so long as it’s for a cause they previously decided they believe in. I first noticed this with the Scottish nationalists in 2014, and it’s just one of many tactics we saw repeated by the Brexiteers.

  • Some “free speech” warriors here should have a tour on Youtube before commenting here. First, you should watch some Prageru/Molyneux/Crowder lying videos, and then, watch “The Alt-Right Playbook” series. You will see that the ideal of Free Marketplace of Ideas will totally collapse if the parties act in bad faith and refuse to play with the rules.

  • There is another way; as easy as lies are disseminated they are also checkable on the web. Educating people that they cannot assume what they read is truth and how to check it will help to reassert the value of news. Ultimately we are responsible for what we believe, not the sender. Legal and financial sanctions against deliberate liers will also help.

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