Next week, the California Assembly will be one of the first legislatures to try to ban so-called “fake news,” and it could have sweeping ramifications for social media users across the state.
The bill, filed Wednesday in the Assembly’s Committee on Privacy and Consumer Affairs, seeks, essentially, to make it a crime to be wrong on the Internet. The text of the bill implicates anyone who writes, publishes or even shares news stories they know could be false, if those news stories later have an impact on an election.
18320.5. It is unlawful for a person to knowingly and willingly make, publish or circulate on an Internet Web site, or cause to be made, published, or circulated in any writing posted on an Internet Web site, a false or deceptive statement designed to influence the vote on either of the following:
(a) Any issue submitted to voters at an election.
(b) Any candidate for election to public office.
Share fake news, in other words, and face a punishment levied by the state of California.
The bill does say that you have to “knowingly and willfully” make reference to a set of “alternative facts,” but it doesn’t give details on who would determine a story is “fake news” or, for that matter, what a “fake news” story even is.
Based on the approach taken in the wake of the 2016 campaign, “fake news” seems to mean a host of different things, from wrong-headed political opinions, to stories that look fishy and are later proven to be false or misleading. Based on this law, it also seems to include any story posted on social media that appears to be politically biased, or comes from any source with an editorial slant.
The bill also seems to infringe on Constitutional guarantees of free speech. Political advocacy is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the Supreme Court has been adamant that political advertising—even when it involves smears, exaggerations and “poetic license”—is included under the umbrella of “political advocacy.”
And, lately, too, the bill would definitely sweep up mainstream media sources in its “fake news” dragnet.
Fortunately for the cause of free speech, California state legislators are already expressing discontent with the bill, and the Electronic Freedom Foundation—not exactly the most conservative organization—is weighing in, citing Constitutional concerns.