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In Trump's world, whoever speaks against him does not speak the truth and does not therefore deserve to speak.

Post-truth era: fake news and the threat to freedom of speech

in Opinion/Politics/Society by

It wouldn’t have been an official Trump announcement without a light hint of outrage. This time it is journalists who had a lot to worry about. In his first press conference since becoming president-elect – something he appears to have actively avoided until recently – Donald Trump blocked certain media groups from speaking. He claimed they cultivated “fake news,” and therefore should remain silent.

Trump’s stance is worrying.

It shows a willingness to break unsaid rules and expectations regarding political transparency. It is also a direct attack on freedom of speech, that fundamental concept which the U.S. claims to champion so vehemently.

Unfortunately, there is popular fuel for his statement. Fake news is becoming a norm, not an exception.

A woman in Germany, for example, reported a horrific attack carried out on a teenager by an asylum seeker. It came to light later that it never happened, but not before the fake news had spread.

On the surface then, it may well look as if the now President of the U.S. would be justified in denouncing fake news. The problem is that to him, his critics are the creators of fake news. A word against Trump is not a truth. What is “not truth” is now to be censored. If the alarm bells are not ringing yet, they should be.

When the president-elect, days before becoming one of the most powerful people in the world, gets to decide who can and cannot express their views, there is a distinct threat to freedom of the press. It is essential that all sides of the debate are free to question, criticize and praise as they will, because it is fundamental to the transparency of a democracy.

The powerful must be held to account and that becomes impossible if critical voices are silenced.

How does this case affect the rest of the world? It spreads. A meeting of the European Parliament group ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom) has already followed suit. The meeting, which right-wing populist leaders including Frauke Petry, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders were scheduled to attend, has likewise denied entry to left-leaning news sources. Trump has set a new precedent.

Transparency is on the way out, and with it comes the rise of actual fake news.

A website called “hoaxmap” opened last year, aiming to plot and debunk all recently discovered fake news stories across Germany and Austria (not yet for the UK, but perhaps the site will expand in the future). The map is crowded with bubbles pinpointing where fake news have been reported.

Two Leipzig-based professionals came up with the hoaxmap to raise awareness against the fake news epidemic, largely targeting refugees, in Germany and neighboring countries. Source: hoaxmap.org
Two Leipzig-based professionals came up with the hoaxmap to raise awareness against the fake news epidemic, largely targeting refugees, in Germany and neighboring countries. Source: hoaxmap.org

Whatever you think of the media, one of its main roles, theoretically, is to keep the workings of the world in check. It cannot enforce, but it can raise awareness and encourage action. If the journalistic sphere becomes inundated with fake news, it will become impossible to do so.

Journalists will face more false leads and a permanent threat of being blocked from important events. At the same time, people will totally lose their trust in the press.

Protocols governing political transparency exist for a reason. That transparency is necessary for how our society works. If any change was ever needed, it would be towards a more transparent system; not change in which the looking glass slowly frosts over.

By Timothy Van Gardingen

Timothy is a UK-based language student (German and Chinese), who likes to use languages and writing as an excuse for adventure. He writes on a wide variety of topics, from societal critique to short stories and poetry. He’s an avid writer, photographer and musician. He will be living in Leipzig soon. Follow him on his blog or on Twitter.

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