A New Report from PEN America Warns: Epidemic of “Fake News” Poses Looming Threat to Free Expression


The spread of “fake news” is reaching a crisis point, PEN America warns in its new report,  Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth. The comprehensive, 100+-page report evaluates the array of strategies that Facebook, Google, Twitter, newsrooms, and civil society are undertaking to address the problem, stressing solutions that empower news consumers while vigilantly avoiding new infringements on free speech.

Coming from the leading US free expression organization, the PEN America report argues that even though most “fake news” is protected by the First Amendment, its proliferation creates a flood of disinformation that imperils open expression writ large and demands a concerted response.

“Fake news is mendacious publication gone viral in the digital age,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, citing the organization’s 1948 Charter which commits PEN to “oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.”

“That most fraudulent news may be protected by the First Amendment doesn’t mean it isn’t corroding our discourse and, ultimately, our democracy,” said Nossel. “When the public loses its bearings in terms of what’s true or false, it shakes the foundations that make freedom of speech valuable.”

Faking News rates the range of fact-checking, algorithmic, educational and standards-based approaches being taken to counter the proliferation of fake news.  The report identifies sound methods that merit investment, and sounds a warning bell for tactics that risk suppressing controversial speech, such as giving government new powers to regulate or calling on social media companies to block specific content entirely.

The report comes out as tech giants Facebook, Google, and Twitter are being called to Capitol Hill to testify about how their companies’ platforms and technologies were used by Russian actors in an effort to sway the 2016 presidential election. Arguing that these companies—which are many Americans’ primary channels for news consumption—must play a critical and transparent role in curbing the spread of false news, the report spells out a series of specific strategies that center on empowering news consumers with access to fact-checking initiatives and news literacy programs.

In Faking News, PEN America also sets out a News Consumers Bill of Rights and Responsibilities outlining what consumers should expect from the outlets and social media platforms that convey news and how they can protect themselves and others.

In addition to the report, PEN America will host a public panel discussion about “fake news” on October 13 at the Newseum in Washington, featuring Nossel, NPR Editorial Director Michael Oreskes, executive director of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center Lata Nott, media critic Rem Rieder, and George Stanley, award-winning editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Newseum’s Gene Policinski.

The report is available here.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. The organization champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible

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