The perils of regulating disinformation and misinformation


Posted by Rohan Samarajiva on June 13, 2020  /  0 Comments

The problem with regulating information is its inherent slipperyness. In 2018, when invited to speak on the subject I quoted a Deputy Minister of the Malaysian Government, speaking in Parliament:

Datuk Jailani Johari, the Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister, explained that fake news is information that is confirmed to be untrue, especially by the authorities or parties related to the news. He said that 1MDB has been investigated by the police and Attorney-General and the reports have been presented to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which is made up of lawmakers from both sides of the divide. Jailani added that recommendations from the PAC report have been accepted and been implemented by the Government. . . .

“As such, the Government views that other than the information that has been verified by the Government, all other information is deemed as fake news,” he said during his ministry’s wrap-up on the debate of the Royal address on Wednesday (March 21).

So when there is an allegation of corruption against the government and the government says the allegation is untrue, the allegation becomes disinformation liable to criminal sanction.

That law was repealed. But it took an election.

Now there is a law under consideration in Ukraine. There is a thoughtful critique that I have been reading:

When introducing the term “disinformation,” the proposal does not propose criteria for identifying information as inaccurate, incomplete, or distorted, which creates the opportunity for abuse. The most problematic of these criteria is “completeness,” which is a quality that can be defined arbitrarily. Any information can be described as incomplete, as any information is a part of a bigger context that is not always available to journalists and, especially, broader circles also targeted by the bill.

The draft bill also ignores the concept of intent, which is fundamental for distinguishing between disinformation as the deliberate spread of false or misleading information, and misinformation, which may be spread unwittingly.

All countries and all companies providing platforms for user-generated information will have to grapple with this issue. Understanding Malaysia and Ukraine is a good place to start.

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