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Russians use liberal playbook to muzzle the press

Russia announced that it will dish out criminal penalties, including jail time, for spreading “fake” news, as its supposedly quick and effortless war against Ukraine bogs down into a humanitarian and military disaster [1].

“[Russian l]awmakers passed amendments to the criminal code making the spread of ‘fake’ information an offense punishable with fines or jail terms. They also imposed fines for public calls for sanctions against Russia,” according to Reuters [2].

Noted in the Reuters report, however, was this telling detail by the BBC, which denounced Russia’s new law: “Britain’s BBC said access to accurate information was a fundamental human right and it would continue its efforts to make its news available in Russia.” 

Note that the BBC qualifies its support for “free speech” with the words “accurate information.”

That’s the media’s mainstream speak for hiring researchers who can find reasons why they can denounce anything they don’t like as “fake news,” as a substitute for the Russian researchers who do the same thing on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

Of course, the Russian innovation here is in using defamation and slander laws to impose criminal penalties on those who spread “fake news.” 

For sure, authoritarian governments have used these laws on defamation and slander in the past to stifle dissent.  

Most of the communist kangaroo show trials of the 20th Century [3] included defamation or slander claims.   

But recently these laws have been revised for the social media age. 

China revised their criminal code in 2014 redefining some speech as terrorism which has “the potential of arousing social chaos, confusion, and, ultimately, collective action would be deemed socially and politically harmful” according to Ge Chen [4], a resident fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.

Note how closely matched the language Chen uses to is to a Pew study of experts and thought leaders on information media about the future of “fake news.”

“In the next 10 years, will trusted methods emerge to block false narratives and allow the most accurate information to prevail in the overall information ecosystem? Or will the quality and veracity of information online deteriorate due to the spread of unreliable, sometimes even dangerous, socially destabilizing ideas?” asked Pew [5], in an unintended parody of the Communist Party of China’s landmark plenary session. 

Of course, Western liberals don’t advocate for criminal penalties for free speech yet. 

Or do they?

Seth Abramson, a journalist and lawyer on Substack, with a million followers on Twitter, in fact, has endorsed the idea of criminal penalties for “fake news.” 

“America will continue to see conspiracies to commit election fraud in the form of mass disinformation campaigns targeting federal agencies and American voters until such schemes are treated as the federal crimes they are. And the same people will keep committing them,” Abramson wrote on Twitter [6]. 

Abramson is the same guy who said that voter fraud is “vanishingly rare [7],” thereby introducing the vanity use — and overuse — of the word “vanishingly” by liberal journalists who need to hit you over the head with their ideas to make a point.  

And Abramson is not alone in advocating criminal penalties over free speech.  

The idea has strong support in the social media community among liberals. 

And then there is the case here at home where parents attending school board meetings were declared “domestic terrorists [8]” for speaking out about the maladministration of their kids’ schools.  

Whether the conjunction between Russia’s and China’s new laws and the Western media’s new methods of fighting disinformation are just happenstance or coincidence or something far more incidental, is hard to say. 

But it’s equally hard to say where the split between the truly authoritarian governments like Russia and China stop and the liberals in our media begin, given the similarities in how they treat free speech when that free speech threatens their own interests.