Fake News IV: The Role of the State

While there has been considerable speculation about the impact of fake news on the election, the recent incident at Comet Ping Pong Pizza shows that fake news can cause real harm. Since one duty of the state is to protect citizens from harm, this leads to the matter of the proper role of the state in regards to fake news.

While people typically base their beliefs about a policy on how they feel, such matters need to be approached based on the consistent application of a principle about what the state should or should not do. “The state should do what I want and not do what I do not want” is no more adequate as a principle of policy than it would be as a principle of law. As such, a proper principle is needed.

Starting with the assumption that the state has a responsibility to protect citizens from harm, it follows that a key part of the principle would be based on this responsibility. The challenge is sorting out whether the harms inflicted by fake news fall under this responsibility.

One reasonable way to approach this is to consider the significance of the harms. As a practical matter, the state cannot afford to expend its resources protecting citizens from all the minor harms. As such, the harms caused by fake news would need to be significant enough to cross this practical threshold. There are two clear points of dispute here. One is the threshold for state involvement in protecting citizens. The other is whether fake news meets that threshold.

As noted above, some claim the fake news impacted the election, perhaps causing Trump’s victory. The manipulation of voters through lies does seem like a significant harm to the citizens who were robbed of an honest decision. The easy counter to this is that politicians often win by lying and these lies are not regarded as falling under the compulsive power of the state. This could be objected to by saying that such lies should be forbidden, but this goes beyond the scope of this short essay.

The Comet Ping Pong Pizza incident does serve as single example of the harm fake news can do—a person who believes a fake story might decide to engage in criminal activity based on that fake news. The easy counter to this is that one incident, even if it is vivid, does not suffice to show that there is a threat of significant harm. It could be countered that even one incident is too many and that the state must step in to protect the citizens.

The response to this is that the incident does not seem serious enough to warrant general state action against fake news and there is the obvious concern about whether there will even be other incidents. The state should only use its coercive power to the degree the harms are significant and likely to occur.

The fact that this matter involves the freedom of expression also complicates things. If the state were to create the machinery to control fake news, this would set a precedent for the gradual expansion of this power. After all, the state tends to expand its powers rather than curtail them. It is easy enough to imagine the control of fake news expanding outward from factual untruths to include matters of ideology. While this slide is not guaranteed, such expansions of power into the realm of basic liberty need to be regarded with due concern. While I am worried about fake news, I do not think it is yet significant enough to justify using the coercive power of the state. There are some obvious exceptions, such as when fake news breaks existing laws (such as libel or slander laws).

But, suppose that the harms of fake news are significant enough to warrant the attention of the state even in the face of the freedom of expression. While this would be a step towards justifying the use of the coercive power of the state, there is still another point of consideration. This is the matter of whether citizens and non-government organizations are unwilling or unable to effectively address the problem. If citizens can adequately address the harms without the state using its coercive power, then it is preferable to have the state remain uninvolved. For example, a couple that is involved in an emotional disaster of a relationship can be suffering considerable harm, but that should be handled by the couple or other people whose help they request (if it does not escalate to actual violence).

Fake news, I contend, can be adequately handled by citizens and non-government organizations. Individuals can take some basic efforts to be more critical of the news, thus protecting themselves from the harms without the state getting involved. Fake news is not like a foreign invader or deadly disease that is beyond the power of the citizens to defend themselves—it is well within their power to do so, if only they would take a little effort to be informed and critical.

Non-government organizations can also counter fake news (and are already doing so).  For example, the real news companies and the fact checkers have been fighting fake news. Companies like Facebook and Google that enable the monetization of fake news can also do a great deal to combat it. While there are clearly concerns about such control of the news, policing of the news is something that the existing networks do. As such, expecting Facebook to accept some basic responsibility for what it profits from is not unreasonable and is already standard practice in traditional news media. This is not to say that concerns about the policies of media companies are irrelevant, just that the fake news does not really create a new situation—all media companies already have policies regarding the news.

In light of the above discussion, the state should not use its coercive power to control fake news. My position is contingent on the facts—should fake news prove to be a significant harm that citizens and non-government organizations are unwilling or unable to counter, then the state could be justified in stepping in.


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