The idea behind wanting to ban fake news seems simple enough: you find the “news” content that isn’t representing the truth objectively and legitimately, then prevent those sites from disseminating their material. However, in practice, laws are written and enforced by a nation’s government—making a legal ban on “fake news” into something else: a powerful censorship tool.
On Monday, March 18th, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed two new national censorship bills that, it’s safe to say, numerous Americans would probably support in the good ol’ U.S. of A. The first bars the creation and distribution of “fake news” and allows the government to levy fines against news outlets found guilty of repeat offenses. The second bill establishes legal justification for the arrest and punishment of individuals who share online content that “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.”
Put simply, the first bill makes it illegal to make “fake news,” and the second one makes it illegal to share it—or to insult the government. But what do these laws really do?
Russia doesn’t exactly have a history of defending speech. Putin is informally implicated in the deaths of numerous journalists and outspoken critics, who often die in ways that make it clear to the Russian people their behavior was being punished by the Kremlin—like poisoning your tea with a rare radioactive isotope found primarily in Soviet weapons programs. Heavy-handed as it may seem, it’s also proven rather effective, allowing Putin to enjoy consistently high levels of national support thanks to his stranglehold on state-run media and the government’s intimidation of individual journalists and sources.
However, the internet represents a clear threat to the Kremlin’s control of information and in turn, the perceptions of the Russian people. As demonstrated through countless foreign propaganda and disinformation efforts, Moscow is acutely aware of how the internet—and social media in particular—can be used to sway the beliefs of a people. With these new bills, the Russian government establishes the legal groundwork to ensure their people are always swayed in what it considers to be the “right” directions.
Simply tweeting something critical of the Russian president is now punishable by fines and even jail time. Individuals squarely in President Trump’s corner might wish the United States would adopt a similar approach to online discourse, but it’s worth asking yourself: would you be in violation of the law if U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was elected in 2016 instead? Therein lies the problem with government-enforced internet censorship: the regime in control dictates what is and isn’t censored. Once it has a grip on the public discourse, it becomes illegal to question that grip.
As the United States struggles with issues revolving around “fake news” and content censorship that some people (or even all) consider inappropriate, it pays to look at how nations like Russia address the problem. In the U.S., where we value individual liberties such as the freedom of speech, many people rally against private corporations like Facebook and Twitter for self-censoring their platforms, removing content they deem inappropriate or offensive. Frustrating as this shift is for many, the nature of the market permits new platforms which may approach censorship differently, and if users prefer those platforms, they’ll migrate to them and let their traffic do the voting.
But in Russia, the keys to the censorship machine are already in the grasp of the nation’s government, just as they were years ago in China. Based on both of these nations’ approaches to aspects such as civil liberties and human rights, it may be worthwhile for America to look to them as examples of what not to do in our own pursuit of better, more objective, and civil media and online environments.