With concerns about “fake news” escalating, some governments and corporations are turning to censorship regimes. How have these events been unfolding, and how should Christians respond?
It's November 2017. Concerns about media misinformation have been rising worldwide, with a slurry of researchers already decrying the dangers of “fake news.” In response, the European Commission—the lawmaking branch of the European Union—has called a group of high-level experts together1 “to advise on policy initiatives to counter fake news and disinformation spread online.”2
Four months pass. The high-level expert group (HLEG), including members with backgrounds in academics, journalism, broadcasting, and professional fact-checking, publish their report.3 Observing that the term fake news “has been appropriated and used misleadingly by powerful actors to dismiss coverage that is simply found disagreeable,” the report opts for the word disinformation, defined as “all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit.”4
The report’s executive summary declares,
[D]isinformation is a multifaceted and evolving problem that does not have one single root cause. It does not have, therefore, one single solution. The HLEG advises the Commission to disregard simplistic solutions. Any form of censorship either public or private should clearly be avoided (emphasis added).5
Fast-forwarding to the present, we don’t have to look far to see that this warning has hardly been heeded. Let’s explore the recent rise of public and private media censorship to better think critically about the information climate we’re living in today.
So many governments have been cracking down on “fake news” that the Poynter Institute for Media Studies—one of the members involved in the HLEG—has compiled a lengthy list to keep track of all these new legislations.6 This guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world, complete with an informative map, observes,
The [HLEG’s] report, while imperfect, explicitly recommends not regulating against misinformation—but the EU is only one of many governing bodies that have sought to stem the flow of online misinformation over the past few months (emphasis added).7
So far, just a few of the government restrictions chronicled in the guide include France’s laws to block or remove “fake news” from online platforms before elections; Belarus’ legislation to prosecute those who spread “false information;” and Malaysia’s ruling to punish the sharing of “fake news” with fines of up to 500,000 ringgit (about $149,000 CAD) or six years in prison. Already, individuals have been arrested for promoting “fake news” in nations including Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Cameroon.9
Apparent limitations on speech have been rising in Canada too, and not only regarding “fake news.” Many Canadians are aware of recently proposed bills to regulate social media platforms9 and to criminalize messages which the government considers hate speech.10,11 In 2020, Canada also presented a Digital Charter which stated, “The Government of Canada will defend freedom of expression and protect against online threats and disinformation designed to undermine the integrity of elections and democratic institutions,” adding, “There will be clear, meaningful penalties for violations of the laws and regulations that support these principles.”12
Campaigns against messages labeled disinformation are by no means limited to governments. Tech giants and social media corporations have faced considerable flack for apparently jumping on the censorship bandwagon too.13 Through means including blocking accounts, removing posts, and manipulating search results, tech corporations regulate users’ exposure to materials which are considered politically offensive in certain nations14 or which fail to meet vaguely defined “community guidelines.”15
For example, in an article entitled “Should We Privatize Censorship?” one researcher noted that in a space between 2016–2018, Facebook removed over 800 accounts flagged as promoting “fake news,” while Twitter removed thousands more.16 The trouble is, tech corporations’ algorithms—including those used to detect and regulate “fake news”—are closely guarded industry secrets. In other words, people outside these corporations can’t know exactly how potential censorship is happening in order to keep tech corporations accountable. As a result, researchers and governments alike have called for tech corporations to make their algorithms more transparent.17,18,19
As Christians basing our thinking on God’s Word, how can we respond to today’s climate of increasing censorship? Asking God for wisdom from his Word—and for the boldness and humility to obey it—is a great way to start. The Bible burgeons with teachings relevant to issues of truth, lies, freedom, and the consequences of words. Here are just a few of these biblical reminders:
Both Scripture and history confirm that the more a society aligns itself with the principles of God’s Word,20 the better the outcome for everyone.21 What does this mean for issues of freedom, speech, and censorship? Galatians 5:13–14 gives us an idea:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
While these verses aren’t talking about freedom of speech specifically, they raise some relevant points. Namely, as humans created in God’s image, we are free agents endowed with the right to express free speech. But as humans accountable to our Creator, we are responsible to use that freedom in ways that reflect God’s loving character—not our human “flesh” corrupted by Adam’s sin. What does “flesh” mean? Galatians 5:19–21 clarify,
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Sexual immorality, violence, anger, enmity . . . these sound an awful lot like the things which social media “community guidelines” say should be regulated.22 But in this case, the guidelines’ ultimate source and enforcer is our infallible, loving Creator—not fallible humans with nebulous algorithms. God, not humans, must set humanity’s “community guidelines.”
Ultimately, as we’ll unpack more next time, a major problem with public and private censorship lies in placing truth solely in the hands of humans when the only real source of absolutes is God. His Word is the infallible foundation from which to understand truth and to think critically about lies—including “fake news.” And notably, critical thinking23 was a key part of the disinformation solutions the HLEG recommended to the European Commission instead of censorship.24
In their words, “The strength of media and information literacy is that it is a preventive, rather than a reactive solution, engendering critical thinking skills that are crucial for the 21st-century citizen living in an increasingly digital environment.”25
We’ve only begun unpacking why critical thinking skills are crucial and why censorship “should clearly be avoided” in a culture where these concepts are growing more relevant than ever. Stay tuned for upcoming posts!