By Michael LaBossiere
In the current political climate, fake news in generally condemned. However, it was once employed as weapon against the Nazis. While the effectiveness of the tactic can be debated, Sefton Delmer waged his own disinformation war with various radio shows such as Der Chef. Given the evil of the Nazis and the context of a war, it seems reasonable to regard this use of fake news as morally acceptable. This, of course, provides a launching point for arguing in favor of fake news.
By definition, fake news involves lying. As such, sorting out the ethics of fake news requires considering the ethics of lying. Sticking with the WWII theme, an obvious focus for a discussion of lying is the allies’ disinformation campaign that was aimed at deceiving the Germans about the landings in France. The allies were lying to the Germans, but this can easily be justified. One obvious approach is utilitarianism: whatever harm might arise from lying would be clearly offset by the benefits gained by these deceptions. In this case, the saving of lives and the start of the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. Naturally, from the perspective of the Nazis, the utilitarian calculation would be rather different.
Another obvious approach is a conditional approach based on the ethics of war: if it is acceptable to kill people in war to achieve military goals, then the use of the lesser evil of deception to achieve military goals would surely be acceptable. There is a potential flaw in this reasoning in that some lesser evils would not be acceptable to inflict. To use a disturbing example, while raping a person is a lesser evil than killing them, the use of rape as a weapon of war certainly seems unacceptable. One possible reason for this is that killing is an inherent part of the nature of armed conflict while rape is not. Obviously enough it could be argued that killing, even in war, is unacceptable and a successful counter of this sort would defeat this justification for lying in war.
A third easy justification is based on the idea that doing bad things to bad people is justified because they are bad. That is, the evil of the Nazis justifies deceiving them because they have no moral right to expect to be told the truth. While appealing, this can be a bit problematic and the obvious counter is to argue that doing bad things to bad people is still bad. These three justifications can be deployed in defense of the current practice of fake news and it is to this that I now turn.
One interesting way to justify fake news of the sort used today is to argue that there is state of war in politics and this justifies the use of the weapon of fake news. On this view, the fact that Alex Jones calls his show Infowars would be quite appropriate. There is also the well-established notion that the United States is engaged in a culture war. If these metaphors are taken literally, then the ethics of war could be used to justify the use of fake news in the same manner that it could be used to justify the deception of Der Chef. The challenge is to show that such a state of war exists and that it warrants the use of deception to achieve military ends. At this time, the war seems rather more metaphorical than literal and thus the war justification does not seem to hold.
Arguing in defense of fake news on utilitarian grounds simply involves making the case that the good done by fake news outweighs the harms. To illustrate, it could be argued that Hillary Clinton being elected president would have been so harmful that the use of fake news to prevent this was justified (although most fake news sources were in it for the money). The obvious problem with this justification is that if someone, such as Hillary, is that bad, then the use of the truth should suffice. This creates a bit of a paradox: if someone is so bad that deception would be justified to defeat them, then no deception should be needed.
This could be countered by arguing that the truth would not suffice. It could be claimed that people are not informed or intelligent enough to see the significance of the terrible truth and thus lies are needed. This would be somewhat like the idea of the noble lie—the people must be deceived for their own good. This is analogous to lying to children to get them to do the right thing because the truth is either beyond their understanding or would not motivate them to do the right thing. This counter does have considerable appeal and could certainly justify deceit to defeat the greater evil.
There is also the option of defending fake news by arguing that the target is bad and thus has no right to expect truth. To illustrate, one could argue that Hillary Clinton’s badness means that lying about her was okay—she is bad, so doing bad things to her is just fine. While this might have some appeal, there is the problem that even if the subject of the lies is bad, there is the matter of the badness of the people being lied to. If the justification is used that bad people can be treated badly, this would require that the people being lied to also be bad. If they are not bad, then this justification would not work.
Thus, there do seem to be reasonable arguments in favor of fake news—it is acceptable to lie when doing so would prevent a greater evil. In the ideal, speaking the truth should suffice. But, I am realistic enough to acknowledge that the truth does not always persuade.