Punishing Fake News

Luke Johnson | SIPA 2018 | February 12, 2017

Should fake news and incorrect facts be punished? Columbia students seem to think so — well, at least after listening to their peers argue each side.

On Tuesday, February 7, at 8PM about thirty students gathered in room 405 to listen to the opposition team (Allia Mohamed, Andy Wang, Sayan Das) and the proposition team (Aly El Salmy, Bryan Lisman, Shawn Bush) debate the following motion:

“This House believes that media outlets should be punished for publishing fake news or incorrect facts”

The session was following by a fiery round of questioning from the audience. View the video below for some of the highlights in the debate.

Note: The opinions expressed by the students are not necessarily their actual opinions, but, instead, are articulated in the interest of the debate. 

General Themes

Ultimately winning the motion, the proposition revolved closely around the following points:

  • Fake news is real and harmful
  • Objective truths exist and can be reached
  • These truths must be protected for a democracy to be successful
  • We are just determining if media outlets should be punished

While the main points for the opposition was:

  • Oppressing the people and ideas
  • Feasibility concerns of punishing different truths or facts
  • Punishing media outlets sets a dangerous precedent, particularly in the international context
  • Prevention, not punishment would be better

Pro-Debater 1 – Aly El Salmy

The first debater, Mr. El Salmy, stressed the point that Fake News is real, and directly shapes public opinion. Using an example of the Spanish American War of 1898, which was referred to by some as the Journal war in the age of Yellow Journalism, he explained how it was started in part by false and misleading news, with the editor at one point saying to his employee: “You furnish me the pictures, and I will furnish you the war.”

Additionally, Mr. El Salmy noted that there are already laws on false or inaccurate reporting, such as slander, libel, defamation. Finally, he declared that Truth is a public good, and requires intervention to sustain it.

Against-Debater 1 – Sayan Das

Mr. Das began the debate by ‘looking back’ to a time where truths were regulated, offering an example of how the Church would have labeled the views of Galileo as ‘fake news’. With this in mind, it is dangerous to support the proposition since they want to establish an Orwellian world, in which discussion is stamped out and a ‘one-truth hegemony’ will reign supreme. Would you like to have Donald Trump and Sean Spicer determine what is real and what is not?

Playing with some more food for thought, Mr. Das offered the Bowling Green Massacre and asked, “who should be punished?” Kellyanne Conway? Or CNN for hosting her? What about anyone who shares the news on social media? Pew researchers show that 70% of respondents believe that normal people are more responsible for spreading it, so would they be punished as well? These are details not outlined by the proposition. In fact, there are three main questions Mr. Das had posed to those promoting the motion:

  1. Who is going to define the truth?
  2. Who is going to define the punishment?
  3. Who is responsible for prosecuting the falsehoods? The government?

Finally, Mr. Das responded to one of the propositions core arguments: there are objective truths. By using a picture of a number ‘6’ as an example, he turned it over to show that, in fact, it was a ‘9’, illustrating that reality is often a subjective understanding. There are no absolute objective truths, and, therefore, there cannot be a higher authority to determine it.

Pro-Debater 2 – Shawn Bush

The next debater for the proposition, Mr. Bush, spent most of his time countering points and challenges  made by Mr. Das. Firstly, the proposition did not deny that fake news was being spread, but the clear distinction is that they did not create the fake news, and should not be punished. Secondly, concerning the Kellyanne Conway question from Mr. Das, Mr. Bush noted that their definition of media outlets were those entities whose primary aim is to disseminate information – disseminating information is not the primary aim of the White House, it is to govern.

In response to the challenges by the opposition — mainly on questions of feasibility in execution — Mr. Bush explained:

“We want to remind the opposition that the resolution we are here to discuss today is should media outlets be punished for publishing fake news. Not who is doing the punishment, not the nature of the punishment, not what you are going to wear to the hearing. It’s ‘should’.”

Finally, Mr. Bush shed further light on the fact that truths are important for a democracy to be successful, quoting “A well-informed citizenry, being necessary to the liberty of a free state is fundamental to democracy.” And that, with misinformation, you cannot have a well-informed citizenry.

Against-Debater 2 – Andy Wang

Andy Wang began by highlighting that the House’s proposition is very flimsy considering they only established that “yes, fake news exists” and “yes, media outlets should be punished.” Mr. Wang continued to press what might happen should the government have the final say in what is real and what is not, drawing a direct quote from 1984:

“‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past’ we are talking about controlling information here, ladies and gentlemen. The House is proposing there be one party which defines objective truth.”

If we continue on this path, he warned, we might be moving towards China, “where all the information is controlled and disseminated through the government”, or Russia or Iran. He concluded by using Germany as an example of a Western Democracy already heading down this path, noting that Germany can fine Facebook 500,000 euros if Facebook does not remove “certain topics that the government deems irresponsible”, painting a  dark picture of the future indeed.

Pro-Debater 3 – Bryan Lisman

Mr. Lisman began by “[bringing] the argument back to where the argument belongs” by slicing through the “sensationalism,…slippery slope…[and] some straw-man [arguments]” to get back to whether or not media outlets should be punished. He quieted the concerns that the proposition was “advocating that the executive branch control what is true and what is not” and noted that “there are objective truths in journalism”.

In continuing this line of thought, Mr. Lisman addressed the Galileo comment brought up by Mr. Das and noted that Galileo lived in a theocracy, not a democracy, and that a democratic government “would not have the power to decide if he was wrong the same way that our executive government today cannot decide if global warming is true or not.”

In response to a Point of Information (an interjection) raised by Allia Mohamed about what a middle ground would look like, Mr Bryan noted defamation laws which are “defined in our constitution is aimed to strike a balance between the distribution of ideas, information and opinions andprotecting people from having lies told about them. It is the same way, except instead of ‘people’ you put ‘events.’ They are recorded, interpretations can be made and not regulated; that is the freedom of opinion and expression.”

Finally, he noted that the US regulated the news up until the 1980’s, during which there were three main news organizations. People like Walter Cronkite existed and thrived during a regulation era.

Against-Debater 3 – Allia Mohamed

Finally, Ms. Mohamed reiterated the fear that punishment is “a gateway to turn a democracy into a dictatorship, into corruption and controlling of the media.” And adding that “we heard the proposition talk about truth being a public good, healthcare is a public good, education is a public good. If they think that truth is a public good, then maybe we should have a ministry of truth.”

Secondly, Ms. Mohamed pointed out that the UN deems this kind of proposition to be illegal since, according to the UN, “False news provisions unduly limit the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression”. Besides, she noted, facts are generally less important than perception:

“The House has been obsessed with preserving facts and truths, but, if the past US election cycle has taught us anything, it is that people’s perception of what is truth can be much more valuable than facts and figures. You can parade facts to the right that you are more likely to get killed by your vacuum cleaner than radical Islamic terrorists, but that does not change what people believe to be true.”

Finally, she noted that a reactionary policy of punishing fake news after it has been published will not fix the problem; particularly considering the fact that there are international news agencies whose “main purpose is to disseminate fake news to other countries. It will be near impossible [to punish or censure], but [the proposition] does not want to talk about punishing international news outlets…Prevention, not punishment!”


Let us know what you think about this topical debate in the comments or by sending an email to: tmpsipasubmissions(at)gmail.com or sipadebates(at)gmail.com