ARE today’s warriors against “fake news” taking a road that will eventually lead to the methods of inquisitors and religious censors? That is the view put forward by Jacob Mchangama, a Danish lawyer and founder of a think-tank which defends free speech against all comers.
Mr Mchangama does not underestimate the threat that phony news items and the “weaponisation” of information pose to the functioning of democracy. But in his view, set out this week in a pithy essay, some reactions to the challenge are unhealthy and inimical to freedom.
He cites, as one example, a German law which imposes fines on social-media companies if they fail to delete “illegal” content within 24 hours. Although ostensibly aimed at hateful or defamatory speech, he believes that the German authorities are blurring the boundary between statements that would in any case be illegal and a dangerously ill-defined concept of fake news. Italian lawmakers, he notes, have been mulling a bill that would punish media outlets of all kinds for “fake, exaggerated or tendentious news regarding data or facts that are manifestly false or unproven.” But how can anyone define what “tendentious” means, without being…tendentious?
By way of warning where all this might lead, Mr Mchangama takes a glimpse at the checkered history of freedom in the historically Christian West. In 2013, Christians celebrated 1,700 years of the edict of Emperor Constantine, which ended the persecution of their faith and provided a degree of religious liberty. But barely six decades after that edict, the eastern Roman empire began to enforce a particular understanding of Christianity. The influential law code of Emperor Justinian, dating from the early sixth century, said of “heretics” or religious dissidents: “Let no occasion be offered for them to display the insanity of their obstinate minds.”
Similarly, the invention of the printing press in the 15th century is generally remembered as a landmark in intellectual and spiritual liberty akin to, some say, the advent of electronic and social media. But as Mr Mchangama points out, one immediate consequence was the Catholic church’s countervailing move to issue an index of prohibited works, updated regularly until the 20th century. The church justified the list by arguing that “freedom of belief” and “freedom to be wrong” were pernicious both for the errant individual and, by extension, for society.
The Protestant Reformation was in part an uprising against the Vatican’s tough enforcement of its intellectual monopoly, but as Mr Mchangama puts it, “Protestant states would also guard their official and monopolised versions of the “Truth” against competing sects.” The secularisers of the French Revolution were eloquent in their denunciation of Christian tyranny over the mind, but soon became ruthless despots themselves. And even the champions of liberty who founded the United States did not defend the idea consistently once they gained office.
Of course a clumsily worded European law on social-media regulation, however undesirable, is a very long way from burning heretics at the stake. But it is worth remembering that in the distant and not-so-distant past, the authorities took it as read that certain ways of thinking and speaking were so manifestly dangerous and disruptive to society that they should be prevented in every possible way. The “freedom to be wrong” is a new and precarious concept, and there is no guarantee that it will survive.
In our time, there are plenty of ideas that are viewed in the liberal Western world as not merely wrong but obnoxious and outside the limits of decent discourse: holocaust denial and openly racist or sexist ideas would be high on most people’s lists.
As long as the advocates of such ideas stop short of inciting violence, however, well-aimed ridicule and tough counter-argument are generally a better response than jail terms or fines. The most effective answer to fake news is accurate news. And for those with strong convictions about spiritual matters, the best response to a theological challenge is to argue back, not to brandish a pair of handcuffs.
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