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The problem with that belief is that it undermines the very foundations of democracy. If you cannot believe your elected representatives than what is the point in elections? They become no more than expensive political theatre.

It certainly seems that the 21st century political arena is filled with more mendacity than previous years, and the instances of misinformation and disinformation appear to be multiplying. The question is: How to deal with the increasing number of lies before they damage our political institutions beyond repair.

Adam Price, leader of the Welsh Nationalist Party Plaid Cymru thinks he has the answer: Make intentional political lying a criminal offence. That is an interesting idea, but not the right answer. Hit them where it really hurts–in their bank accounts– by extending the laws of libel to social media.

Winston Churchill is alleged to have said that “a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” In today’s social media world of the internet, trolls, hacks, cyber attacks and 24/7 news, a lie can be orbiting the North Star before truth even thinks of climbing out from under the duvet.

The Internet is the greatest boon to freedom of speech since the Gutenberg press. Billions of people now have access to the greatest body of information at any time in history. But every action has a reaction and they are not always good. Even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has recognised that his digital offspring is a mixed blessing.

There has been talk of regulating social media. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been hauled before parliamentary committees on both sides of the Atlantic and told that he has to find a way of preventing his cash cow digital platform from becoming a vehicle for fake news. He has been told that he should employ tens of thousands of editors to plough through every posting – which run to the 1.62 billion accesses daily–and remove anything that smacks of lies and hate speech. On Twitter there are 500 million daily tweets. Their impact is multiplied by retweets and republication on traditional mainstream media.

But forcing social media giants to police their platforms is not the answer. It is a physical impossibility. And besides, under Section 230 of America’s Communications Decency Law, social media platforms cannot be held liable for postings published on their platforms. And as most of the social media giants are based in the US, American law has become the global standard. But there is another possible solution using libel laws.

Under the libel law in most countries, If you tell a deliberate lie which causes damage to another person or organisation then you can be sued for damages. If the lie is bad enough you may actually go to prison. Generally speaking the ones who bear the brunt of court action are the media who reproduced the lie. Damages can run into the millions and there is a lucrative industry for libel insurance. The situation is different in the United States where the First Amendment allows the media to say almost anything they want about a person as long as they are judged to be a public figure.

The internet has turned billions into reporters, editors and publishers in their own right. All they have to do is write a blog, a paragraph on Facebook or 280 characters in a Twitter Tweet. They press “send” and their thoughts and beliefs are winging their way to a potential audience the size of which William Randolph Hearst could only dream. Yet—because of Section 230 and similar laws—they bear no responsibility for their musings.

Extend the libel laws to include anyone who uses social media. Make them financially responsible for the consequences of spreading fake news and hate speech. If they are forced to pay damages for irresponsible comments then they will think more than twice before pressing fingers to keyboards.

There is one possible problem—the cloak of anonymity which too many trolls don to hide their identity and protect themselves from retribution. Here the social media companies can play a role. They cannot check every post, but they can check the identity of every user and insure that they are who they say are.

None of the above is an attack on free speech. It is an attack on the abuse of free speech to insure that free speech and the democratic institutions that it underpins are protected.

Political journalist Tom Arms is a regular contributor.


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