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  • Written by Samuel Jens, Adjunct Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Stony Brook University (The State University of New York)
imageA Malaysian ad discouraging the dissemination of fake news.AP Photo/Vincent Thian

“Fake news” legislation that governments around the world have written in recent years to combat mis- and disinformation does little to protect journalistic freedom. Rather, it can create a greater risk of harm.

That’s the main finding of a review I helped conduct of legislation either considered or passed over the past several years related to fake news and mis- and disinformation. In all, the Center for News, Technology and Innovation, or CNTI – an independent, global policy research center comprising news professionals and academics like myself – looked at legislation in 31 countries, ranging from Ethiopia to the Philippines.

We drew upon previous reports and data from the Center for International Media Assistance, LEXOTA and LupaMundi – all of which track media laws globally – to identify legislation either considered or passed from 2020 through 2023.

We analyzed 32 pieces of legislation by qualitatively and quantitatively coding key terms concerning, among others, “news” and “journalism,” “fake news” and “journalists,” and any authorities responsible for overseeing these terms.

While the legislation targeted what was termed “fake news,” the phrase itself was only explicitly defined in just seven of the 32 pieces of legislation we looked at – or less than a quarter.

Fourteen of the 32 policies clearly designate the government itself with the authority to arbitrate that definition, while 18 don’t provide any clear language in that regard – thereby giving government control by default.

Lack of clarity in “fake news” laws can be found across different regime types, with 12 of these 31 countries we looked at considered to be democracies.

Meanwhile, punishment for violations can be severe, including imprisonment from several months up to 20 years in Zimbabwe.

We found there are few protections for fact-based news or journalistic independence in the legislation we examined. Loosely defined laws pertaining to “fake news” could be used by governments to crack down on an independent press.

Why it matters

The record number of national-level elections being held in 2024 comes amid concern about the public’s access to reliable, fact-based news – both in terms of the independence of news outlets and the potential to use media to spread disinformation.

Whether intentional or not, the legislation we examined created potential opportunities to diminish opposing voices and decrease media freedom – both of which are particularly important in countries holding elections.

And even though the expressed intention of this legislation – of which 13 out of 32 were related to the COVID-19 pandemic – was to curb disinformation, the lack of clear definitions risks limiting journalistic freedoms as well as the public’s open access to a plurality of fact-based news.

Our findings further highlight the importance of a careful and deliberate approach to defining language in legislation relating to the media.

What still isn’t known

We do not know the long-term implications of this set of legislation. There is evidence that these types of laws cause chilling effects in which journalists and sources are less likely to pursue certain topics to avoid potential legal consequences.

CNTI will continue to follow these developments as part of its ongoing research program.

What’s next

The report on fake news legislation was the first in a series of research projects CNTI will conduct in 2024 that revolve around the idea of defining journalism in our digital, global society.

Future research will focus on three areas: policy analyses, public surveys in multiple countries about what news means to people today, and an international survey of journalists to understand how they view their industry given the rise of artificial intelligence and the potential for increased government interference.

Amy Mitchell, Executive Director of the Center for News, Technology and Innovation, contributed to this article. The Research Brief is a short take on interesting academic work.

CNTI is a 501c3 that receives financial support from a number of organizations including the Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Google, the Knight Foundation, the Lenfest Institute, and the MacArthur Foundation.

Authors: Samuel Jens, Adjunct Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Stony Brook University (The State University of New York)

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