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Russia, Accused of Faking News, Unfurls Its Own ‘Fake News’ Bill

MOSCOW — Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies said spread its fair share of misinformation during the 2016 U.S. election, says it will crack down on “fake news” at home, with a proposed law that critics say could limit freedom of speech on the internet.

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Lincoln Pigman
, New York Times

MOSCOW — Russia, which U.S. intelligence agencies said spread its fair share of misinformation during the 2016 U.S. election, says it will crack down on “fake news” at home, with a proposed law that critics say could limit freedom of speech on the internet.

The bill, submitted by lawmakers from the governing party, United Russia, proposes holding social networks accountable for “inaccurate” comments users post. Under existing Russian law, social media users can be punished for content deemed to promote homosexuality, threaten public order or be “extremist” in nature, with fines as well as prison time.

Under the proposed rule, part of a creeping crackdown on digital rights under President Vladimir Putin, websites with more than 100,000 daily visitors and a commenting feature must take down factually inaccurate posts or face a fine of up to 50 million rubles, about $800,000.

The bill gives social media companies 24 hours to delete “inaccurate” information after being notified of its existence, raising concerns that moderators will be left to interpret the term, which is vaguely defined in the measure.

The legislation has passed one of three votes in Parliament.

Critics worry that out of an abundance of caution, moderators are likely to interpret truthfulness to the authorities’ advantage. They say the bill would make it easier for the state to pressure social media companies to cooperate with security services by requiring them to establish offices in Russia, a step that social media giants Facebook and Twitter have avoided so as not to fall under Russian legal jurisdiction.

Internet companies, which have often borne the financial costs of restrictions in Russia, say that too many people write posts and leave comments for moderators to thoroughly review every potential instance of false news within 24 hours.

The bill “will become an instrument of censorship” unless social media companies develop algorithms to distinguish real news from fake news, removing the human element and potential bias, Vladimir V. Zykov, the head of an association of social media users in Russia, warned in a recent meeting with lawmakers.

Human rights advocates say the bill holds clear echoes of the term frequently used by President Donald Trump. Adrian Shahbaz, a research manager at Freedom House, said Trump’s “use of ‘fake news’ as a catchall term for media outlets he does not like” has inspired crackdowns on press freedom around the world.

“As with the term ‘terrorist,’ it has basically become an insult used to smear and discredit opponents,” he added.

Still, “the proliferation of deliberately falsified information online is a widely recognized problem,” even as efforts to counter it can be abused, Shahbaz said. Already this year, at least five countries have passed laws regulating fake news online, he added.

These governments have taken different approaches. In May, Kenya banned information that is “calculated or results in panic, chaos or violence,” or that is “likely to discredit the reputation of a person.” Malaysia, like Russia, chose a different tact, targeting false information regardless of its consequences. In April, Malaysia’s lower house of Parliament passed a bill outlawing fake news, the first measure of its kind in the world. France is weighing its own measure.

Russian lawmakers have also noticed these initiatives — some meant to counter Russian-made fake news — and have co-opted their language and arguments. Marina A. Mukabenova, deputy chairwoman of a Parliament committee on information policy, told the daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta that fake news sparked “heated discussion” and divided Russian society.

In contrast with debates on fake news in the United States and Europe, Russian lawmakers seem most focused on domestic dissent, rather than foreign meddling. For example, the bill’s co-sponsor, Sergei M. Boyarsky, pointed to what he suggested was a clear-cut case of damaging online information: a flurry of posts that exaggerated the death toll of a mall fire in Siberia.

“The tragedy in Kemerovo showed how vulnerable our information space within social networks is to the falsification of information,” he told the news agency Tass.

And yet, in the fire’s aftermath, relatives of victims accused authorities of hiding the true death toll, writing social media posts that helped spur protests and calls for local officials to resign. True or not, the fatality figures posted online became central to a national debate in one of the first domestic crises of Putin’s fourth presidential term. The proposed law, though, would have squelched this debate.

Activists are skeptical that authorities have Russians’ best interests at heart. The language of public safety often conceals efforts at censorship, said Artem Kozlyuk, founder of Roskomsvoboda, an anti-censorship website. The end result, he said, is always “expansion of the government’s powers and censorship.”

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