Irish Parliament to Debate Huge Fines, Jail Time for Fake News
In a move sure to raise eyebrows in the media world, the Dáil of the Irish legislature is about to debate proposals that will make purveying “fake news” a criminal offense. In doing so, they become the first western government, as far as we can tell, to actually propose legislation that criminalizes fake news specifically. If passed, a precedent may be established for other like-minded governments to follow.
News of this groundbreaking story comes courtesy of the Irish Independent. The new proposals were tabled by the center-right Fianna Fáil, one of the biggest political parties in Ireland. The proposals seek to make it an offense to actively promote fake news using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The suggested fines are no laughing matter; offenders can be fined up to €10,000 or face five years’ imprisonment for each individual infraction. (Source: “Five years in jail for spreading ‘fake news’ under FF proposal,” Irish Independent, December 4, 2017.)
Furthermore, the bill contains numerous restrictions on online political advertising. It will require ad purchasers to submit additional transparency notices stating their intention and target audience.
Clearly, legislators are attempting to get ahead of the curve in the rapidly changing media landscape. News dissemination is becoming much more fluid, in part because of the massive mistrust of partisan mainstream media. Many popular social media news sources emanate from non-journalists, throwing more complexity into the mix.
As such, Fianna Fáil has provided the biggest attempt (to date) to tackle erroneous reporting from non-credentialed social media sources. Party member James Lawless, who has written the legislation, acknowledged as much, saying, “We should not be naive in thinking Ireland will not be affected by the new form of hybrid information warfare which is underway on social media.” (Source: Ibid.)
While the legislation seems rather Orwellian on the surface, it doesn’t appear to target social media users who unknowingly communicate fake news through retweeting or re-linking to dubious sources. It mainly targets social media accounts or “bots” that cause multiple online profiles to act in a political way. It even defines “bot” as “any item of software which uses 25 or more accounts or profiles online to run automated tasks.” (Source: Ibid.)
Of course, the danger of passing such legislation is that the law’s mandate could expand over time. It wouldn’t be the first time that a law’s targeted mission statement becomes overreaching down the line. Limited scope is how the government sells it to the public to begin with.
But for now, the bill is only just that—a bill. We’ll be watching with earnest to see if it gets enacted into law. The ramifications of such a decision will reverberate worldwide.