• Mia Cathell

Rebuttal: The Taxation of Fake News

Taxation is a solution to eliminate fake news, proposes a Boston University information economist in a BU Today article.

Marshall Van Alstyne, a BU professor, regurgitates a radical theory by English economist Arthur Pigou: taxing negative behavior through financial punishment deters recurrence. He proposes this Pigouvian tax on fake news to hold producers responsible for the “negative externalities” they have caused—by evaluating the scope of damage inflicted on the public and taxing in proportion.

Van Alstyne explains that “negative externalities” are consequences of actions that affect innocent people. He then provides a recent example, describing the nationwide measles outbreak due to anti-vaccination propaganda found on the Internet. Van Alstyne goes on to create a false equivalence by relating the measles incident to drunk driving. But if you were to drive drunk, it was your explicit choice to do so and therefore would be held liable for your actions. However, if you were to not vaccinate your children, then it can’t be said that the individuals spearheading the anti-vaccination campaign physically caused your subsequent actions. In both of these cases, it was your actions that, in fact, caused the harm on an innocent third party.

Van Alstyne defines fake news as information that causes harm at scale. This is not a tax on free speech, Van Alstyne insists. What you’re doing is you’re taxing the damage, he states. “Negative externalities" don’t explicitly conflate speech with violence. Van Alstyne is hesitant to connect the dots to this unstated premise. His logical conclusion—that the government must protect its citizens from fake news—is derived from equating fake news to violent speech. As a tax on cigarettes seeks to eliminate smoking, a tax on government-determined fake news seeks to eliminate non-government-approved speech.

“It’s not censoring free speech—rather it’s punishing them for the harm that their free speech causes.” But that’s the definition of censorship: state-controlled news.

Van Alstyne even concedes that fake news “is hard to disprove, as determining absolute truth is a challenge in and of itself.” Then who decides what’s fake news in a polarized society? “Sometimes, the term ‘fake news’ can be applied too loosely, or worse, he says, co-opted by powerful figures in an effort to sow doubt in honest reporting.” If Van Alstyne’s policy prescription for fake news is implemented, then journalistic truth conforms to the majority’s prerogative, redefining the truth according to the controlling party’s agenda. Contesting thought can be criminalized as fake news in a smear campaign. The truth becomes subjective and as wavering as partisanship in office. If fake news, by Van Alstyne’s own admission, is so difficult to determine and dangerous in a powerful figure’s hands, then why give the government, arguably the most powerful institution in America, the power to discern what qualifies as accurate news?

Van Alstyne suggests that an independent body would adjudicate, “comparable to a nonpartisan judicial body.” Even if a government actor claims to be unbiased, slant is inherent and impossible to exclude from political opinion. For example, while we tend to romanticize the Supreme Court as an omniscient, checking institution not motivated by re-election, it, too, is subject to partisanship. Controversy surrounds appointments. Parties balance the Court based on judges’ political leanings in landmark cases. Even if we were to choose FactCheck.org or Snopes—as Van Alstyne advises in a comment section rebuttal—to be independent regulators, Van Alstyne nevertheless argues to police the free press under some form of government.

Van Alstyne then proposes another solution to the circulation of fake news by “curbing the source’s social network—either by temporarily suspending their account or limiting the number of people who can follow them.” He says that this effect would snatch the “metaphorical megaphone” from the liar’s lips.

Here, Van Alstyne moves on to criticize from a different angle. You don’t necessarily have a right to amplification, he points out, alluding to the legal fact that the right to free speech is not absolute. He then continues, And if [the information you’re spreading is] provably false, you’re not going to be amplified. By amplification, he means the mechanism of mass communication. Directly attacking speech is dangerous; it’s in direct opposition to the First Amendment. Rather, Van Alstyne questions the methodology. Whether targeting the consequential harm or the access to a platform, Van Alstyne treats the apparatus of speech as a means to an end. But this roundabout justification nonetheless restricts freedom of speech.

Van Alstyne’s semantics alludes to an Orwellian dystopia where the government controls the free market of thought, functioning as the arbiter of truth. First, by questioning the harmful effects of speech. Then, by silencing the instruments of expression. Finally, it creates a Ministry of Truth where the government acts as a gatekeeper, using taxation to cherry-pick by force.

To support his argument on the proliferation of fake news, Van Alstyne borrows data visualization from a 2018 Science study that plots tweeted fake news in orange and real news in teal, confirming that misinformation “spread[s] faster and more broadly than stories of truth.”

MIT data scientist Soroush Vosough conducted the research behind the visual. From 12-year-old Twitter data, his team found that the truth rarely reached more than 1,000 users while fake news routinely propagated to 10,000 users. Fake news tweets had novelty—containing new information unseen to a Twitter user—and emotional charge—eliciting reactions of astonishment and distaste. Overall, Vosough found that these two components generate a greater number of retweets.

What does this prove? Sensationalism sells and gossip has adapted to social media networks.

Van Alstyne’s concern is with the “mass spread of misinformation at the societal level.” Misinformation by itself cannot cause harm; however, when people believe misinformation, debate over the truth arises within society. Debate fosters exchange of ideas that has led to reconstruction of social ideology. And de jure principles should be questioned. Debate challenges the status quo when archaic preconceptions no longer align with society’s morality. For example, slavery was ended due to unpopular opinion: abolition. So, allow bad ideas to be bad ideas and the truth will reign in Social Darwinism.

This brings us to a terrifying yet plausible conclusion—Van Alstyne fails to mention—to his premise that fake news is violent speech: imprisonment for tax evasion. Indictment will be the penalty for instances of refusal. To enforce the tax, dissenters of government-defined truth will be jailed. If a person or organization is committing violence upon society, why should that offense go without punishment?

The hypothesis that the "economic theory about taxation could curb dissemination of misinformation" is actually true, but the opposite is also true. Taxation will curb dissemination of information.

Nicholas Deane contributed to the reporting of this article.