New proposal could mean five years’ jail time for spreading fake news in Ireland

4 Dec 2017

Leinster House, Dublin. Image: Peter Krocka/Shutterstock

But wait, aren’t politicians usually the real sultans of spin?

This is not fake news: Ireland’s main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, is to call for tough laws to curb the epidemic of fake news with hefty punishments that include up to five years in jail.

There is no doubt we live in crazy political times. Trump is in office in the US and world peace is threatened by sabre-rattling in North Korea. Theresa May is hellbent on leading the UK into a doubtful economic future. Here in Ireland, at the most dangerous of times because of Brexit, we have just narrowly avoided a pre-Christmas election.

Because of the rise of social media in these strange political times, we also live in a surreal reality where ‘fake news’ is obscuring our perception of the truth.

Interestingly, new legislation is being tabled by Fianna Fáil – also upon whose sufferance the current Government owes its existence – to tackle the scourge of fake news.

Fianna Fáil fights against fake news

A new bill has been written by Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless that will make it an offence to actively promote fake news using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Specifically, it targets the use of bots that are being used to “disseminate a political message”.

The bill contains restrictions on online political advertising and will require those who purchase the ads to display a notice stating their purpose and target audience.

The idea is no doubt well meaning, but doesn’t it fly in the face of how politicians traditionally garner support by stoking up the masses for or against a cause?

According to the Irish Independent, the proposed legislation will come with hefty fines, ranging from €500 up to €10,000, or even up to five years’ jail time.

The bill defines online platforms that spread fake news as any website, including social networks or search engines, that has more than 10,000 unique monthly visitors.

It targets the use of automated bots that run 25 or more social media accounts or profiles online, and any person that uses bots or multiple online profiles to act in a political way could be guilty of offence.

Lawless is right – there is a scourge of fake news and it is fair to surmise that the major social media networks have done little so far to curb it.

But, in Ireland, a country that has so far failed to jail bankers that destroyed the hopes and dreams of entire generations, it is hard to see such legislation enacted to jail politicians, or even see politicians here be digitally knowledgeable enough to put bots to nefarious use. Worse still, it is hard to imagine politicians going to jail for doing what politicians have always done: spin to the masses.

We will wait and see.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years