Newsmaker: PM’s move to tackle ‘fake news’ draws support, concerns

The content originally appeared on: Jamaica News Loop News

This week’s overall development as Newsmaker of the Week is the range of reactions to Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ announcement that the Government will be taking steps to address the spreading of fake news in Jamaica.

Since Holness stated that the Government has the necessary tools to track down individuals who are spreading misinformation, there have been concerns expressed in some quarters about the legality of such plans and moves, and whether it will impact the constitutional right to free speech.

Social media users have been largely pushing back against the Government’s stance, this despite Senator Dr Dana Morris Dixon, the minister without portfolio in the Office of Prime Minister (OPM) with responsibility for information, skills and digital transformation, trying to soothe the concerns that have arisen from Holness’ remarks. 

Holness has also since clarified that the Government’s aim is to properly regulate the social media space, and not to suppress free speech.

Speaking at a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) youth empowerment meeting in Ocho Rios, St Ann on Saturday, June 22, Holness said his Government has been tracking cases of politically motivated misinformation, and will soon take action against those persons, especially young persons who are involved in such activities. 

“I’m not going to say too much about our capabilities to track it (fake news), and we have been tracking, and you are going to see some actions very shortly for those persons who are using social media (maliciously)… Much of what is being done is, in fact, against the law,” he declared.

The prime minister shared the recent case of a young man who made a post on social media that he (Holness) said bordered on being “defamatory” and “probably libellous”.

He said the young man was “tracked” and his identity was established. 

“The long and short of it is that the person was put up to doing this by a political organisation,” Holness claimed.

He elaborated that, “When you dig behind it, which we have the capabilities to do, and to discover the people behind these accounts, they are young persons being recruited to do this.

“It is purely out of good conscience that many of them we don’t pursue, because they are young people, they are being misled, (and) they are being used for the wrong purpose,” said Holness.

By Monday morning, the reactions to Holness’ comments began to be dissected by Jamaicans, including political commentators.

One such commentator, Lloyd B Smith, a publisher and editor at The Western Mirror and former PNP Member of Parliament (MP), said there already exists remedies to address fake news under the country’s defamation laws and other statutes.

In a radio interview, Smith said both political parties need to exercise principled political leadership to curb misinformation, and not interact with what he called “the lowest common multiple”, meaning their supporters who push fake news online. 

As for the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP), they condemned Holness for his move to tackle “fake news” on social media, describing such a move as a direct threat to free expression and privacy. 

The PNP said while addressing misinformation is crucial, the party believes that the prime minister’s approach dangerously overreacts and undermines democratic principles and constitutional rights.

Further, PNP’s Spokesperson on Information and Communication, Nekeisha Burchell, called out what she said was “the prime minister’s selective outrage, as he continues to ignore fake news (that are being) spread by his party members.” 

Senator Dr Dana Morris Dixon, minister without portfolio in the Office of Prime Minister with responsibility for information, skills and digital transformation (File photo)

But Cabinet Minister, Dr Dana Morris Dixon, defended Holness’ position, arguing that the lies being spread on social media represent “a threat to our democracy”. 

In addressing a JLP Area Council 1 meeting in West Kingston last week, she said a country cannot be built on lies, and disinformation is emanating widely on social media platforms.

“It’s a problem, and it is right for our prime minister to say that it cannot continue this way, and we have to do something about it,” Morris Dixon stated.

She also described as “foolishness”, assertions that are being made that Holness “wants to keep you quiet”.

She said: “All our prime minister is saying is that we have to build a country that is built on the truth.”

At the weekly post-Cabinet press briefing on Wednesday, Morris Dixon further sought to clarify that the Government is not engaged in tracking anyone on social media, but is committed to protecting democracy. 

She said the notion that the Government should not go after persons who spread fake news is “strange”. 

Added Morris Dixon: “What the Government is saying is that what is posted on social media needs to be based in truth, and in that vein, what we have said is that where there are issues, or instances where we know individuals have posted things that are not true, that we will have to go after those individuals in terms of prosecuting them.”

She pointed to other countries taking similar action to curtail ‘fake news’, but said that there has been, to date, no new laws crafted in Jamaica to address the issue.

“There are already laws that exist that can be used in terms of prosecuting individuals who do not speak truth online,” she declared. Morris Dixon said a public education campaign, focusing on social media literacy, is to be expanded with the aid of the Broadcasting Commission to help citizens to better discern truthful information online, especially with artificial intelligence (AI) being incorporated in driving fake news.

Holness, on Friday while delivering the keynote address at the launch of the Youth Summer Employment Programme (YSEP) at William Knibb Memorial High School in Trelawny, further clarified his position on the matter of fake news, stating that the Government is not suppressing freedom of speech, but creating a safe online space. 

“We want to be able to properly regulate that space, not to take away anybody’s freedom, but to help you to be safe with the information you receive, and with the transactions that you have to do online,” Holness said. 

Amid the defence and clarifications from the Government, the viewpoints from persons on social media appeared mix on the move by the Administration to clamp down on disinformation.

“I understand the issue of blatant lies, but I listened the PM (prime minister) carefully, and I am sorry, but it is very dangerous what he said. My views,” a woman commented on Instagram. 

Questioned another: “How you validate lie or truths? Is it that only you can speak truth and no one can challenge your ideology? Is this censorship?… Interesting. I’ll wait for the lawsuits.” 

A man commented: “It’s interesting hearing all this, but who stops the Government from giving misinformation? 

“I’m curious to know that… (because) it’s a very slippery slope to stop ppl (people) from sharing their own thoughts and opinions. Yes it may be wrong at times, but in a democracy, it’s their choice to make; not the Government’s…” the man argued.

But a woman lauded Holness for his stance. 

“The lies being spread on social media, especially on TikTok, about the Government and our prime minister, is getting out of hand. PM Holness, duh weh yuh have to do sir. I support you 100%,” she stated.

On Facebook, there was support for Holness and his viewpoints on the matter of fake news, and also some seemingly pertinent questions for him.

“Some of these people get up and tell lie for nothing, then talk about freedom of speech. Smh. Freedom of speech should be factual and honest,” a male Facebook user said.

“While I believe in freedom of speech and the right to free expression, the things I have observed on social media being uttered by especially the bloggers of these political parties, action needs to be taken. It’s not a PNP and JLP position to take, because both sides are doing it,” a woman suggested.

Said a man: “I agree with you wholeheartedly, Mr Holness, but tackle corruption too please”. 

Still, some social media users were not in agreement with Holness’ positions on the subject matter.

“So Mr PM, all those bloggers who live a foreign, what are you going to do? Beg Uncle Sam fi silence them? A better you did seh you are going to counter the misinformation by putting out the truth,” said a man on Facebook. 

Wrote another: “Mr Holness, I would urge you sir to address your bloggers spreading fake news, and I know some of your MPs (Members of Parliament) support some of those bloggers who tell blatant lies.”