Surely, somebody can stop the most egregious offenders from spreading health misinformation that hurts or kills people, right? Actually, no, not in a free society. The only solution to fake news is better news.
President Trump caused a controversy when he said that it is "frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write." He is absolutely right, but what can be done about it? His emotive and knee-jerk solution of revoking media licenses is deeply problematic.
It is easy to sympathize with Mr. Trump's view on what he likes to call "fake news." Science writers, like those of us at ACSH, fight pseudoscience and false information every single day. Anti-vaccine propagandists and alternative medicine practitioners literally have blood on their hands. Anti-GMO activists are manipulative liars who have libeled honest scientists. TV doctors claiming miracle cures are charlatans. Mike Adams, the "Health Ranger" and purveyor of Natural News, regularly spouts conspiracy theories on top of phony medicine.
The nonsense doesn't end there. Some of the worst junk science can be found in the pages of the New York Times. Indeed, the media is so bad at reporting science and health news, that we had to create a graphic to guide readers toward good sources and away from dubious ones. Surely, somebody should be able to stop the most egregious offenders from spreading information that hurts or kills people, right?
In fact, I was asked that very question at a recent seminar I gave on fake news at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. A graduate student in the audience asked, "Can't you just ban it?"
Not in a free society, and certainly not in the United States. The cost of free speech is that we must tolerate speech we hate -- even speech that is factually incorrect and dangerous to your health.
Why Banning Fake News Won't Work
Journalists and writers make a living by exercising their right to free speech. It would be hypocritical to suggest that my right to free speech ought to be protected while that of others should not. In addition to that rather self-serving justification, as well as a dedication to the general principle of freedom, there are three practical reasons why banning fake health (or any other) news won't work.
The first is best posed as a question: "Who decides which news is fake?" If we are to shut it down, somebody has to be the final arbiter of what is and is not fake news. Who could we trust to do that? The government? A third-party fact-checker? Popular vote? All of these methods are fatally flawed. The government barely functions even on a good day, third-party fact-checkers are not necessarily agenda-free diviners of truth, and the public is pretty much wrong about everything. For these reasons, we could never trust the decisions of any "fake news" committee.
Second, even if it was possible to appropriately identify and shut down fake news outlets, like whack-a-mole, new ones would sprout up to take their place.
The third reason is that bans sometimes have the unintended consequence of making the object of the ban more appealing. What's more thrilling than reading a banned book or going somewhere your parents strictly had forbidden? The very act of condemning something often makes it more enticing. A similar phenomenon would likely occur if fake news was banned. Conspiracy theorists could lure even more people with "secret knowledge the government doesn't want you to know."
Thus, while banning fake news is tempting, it is doomed to failure. The only solution to fake news is better news. That's hard work, but it's the price we must pay to keep our modern society free.