President Donald Trump used an incident with a reporter tweeting a fake quote attributed to Trump to highlight the reason why libel laws should be changed to combat fake news.
In the tweet, Ian Bremmer, who is the founder of Eurasia Group and a political science professor at New York University, claimed that Trump said the following: “Kim Jong Un is smarter and would make a better President than Sleepy Joe Biden.” He later admitted that the quote was a fabrication.
Is Trump right? Should libel laws be stricter to protect people like the President from false quotes and fabrications?
This is dangerous ground to tread.
While such false quotes can lead to situations that might cause diplomatic disasters and certainly can lead to political problems, it might be questionable as to whether it is justifiable in light of the importance of free speech and free press to restrict the possibility of fake news. Yes, this particular quote and other fabrications like it are dangerous, however, in this example, other journalists quickly pointed out the fabrication and Bremmer backed away. The journalistic market corrected itself. Bremmer has even been rightfully shamed by his peers for peddling falsehoods and attempting to lead the public to believe his own personal narrative.
We live in a new age where the “mainstream media” controls less of an audience and has less influence than it used to. People have gained access to information that looks around the former gatekeepers of news and supplies a lot more eyes and opinions from which consumers can choose. Sometimes that’s a good thing and provides for greater objectivity, but it has also led to sources so numerous as to be far too difficult to police for false information. People have to be their own fact checkers and compare multiple sources to get a sense for the truth in news. No change in the libel laws will prevent the masses of information providers from having their own agendas and their own presentations of what is happening. Unless the President wants to sue tens of thousands of people for libel, he should get used to being misrepresented, and even having people fabricate the things said about him.
When a private citizen is libeled with falsehoods, it damages their ability to make a living, to maintain their dignity, and to operate in society. There are direct monetary damages. Or, if the private entity is a business, there are direct, quantifiable losses. When a public official is libeled, it can create a lot of bad publicity and have many ill effects on the political process, but the public official often does not have a lot of personal financial damages. Perhaps the libel is enough to get the person tossed out of office, but public positions are not meant to offer permanent financial livelihoods.
If we are to allow public officials, especially the President, to shut down anything they might deem to be a falsehood, then we risk all free speech and free press being shut down. Such a power is not something we want to grant. The difference between falsehood and opinion is a line that can easily be distorted and exploited. Perhaps in this instance the falsehood was blatant and obvious, but this is not the case with all accusations of libel. We don’t want to have the President, or any other public servant, being capable of accusing any message they do not approve of as being libelous, therefore shutting down whatever speech and press they desire. Public servants have a different situation from private individuals, and it is one of their own choosing.
None of this is to say that journalists or the press should be free from being held accountable. Fabrications and falsehoods are serious business, and this is something that can damage us all. However, it is our job to call out such information when we see it and publicly shame these individuals for their underhanded attempts to control politics at the cost of a misled public.
But let’s put things in perspective.
Where a private individual or business has relatively few sources of information reporting and it is much easier for libel to do its damage, public officials have lots of eyes watching and falsehoods tend to get corrected. The greater the potential impact of the falsehood, the greater potential there is for it to be called out and ridiculed.
People who purposefully try to mislead the public, like Bremmer, deserve a loss of public faith and shame to their integrity. But stronger libel laws that offer greater power to public officials to control narratives is not the answer. We don’t want public servants to have the ability to shut down speech, even falsehoods, because there is just too much danger, and the risks involved that justify the occasional falsehoods that come up that later get called out all on their own. Public officials are just going to have to accept that with the tens of thousands of people out there disseminating news there is going to be a lot of fake news that they cannot control.