Commentary

Free Speech and Fake News

PRINCETON – About a week before the United States presidential election last November, someone posted on Twitter that Hillary Clinton was at the center of a pedophilia ring. The rumor spread through social media, and a right-wing talk show host named Alex Jones repeatedly stated that she was involved in child abuse and that her campaign chairman, John Podesta, took part in satanic rituals. In a YouTube video (since removed), Jones referred to “all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped.” The video, posted four days before the election, was watched more than 400,000 times.


Emails released by WikiLeaks showed that Podesta sometimes dined at a Washington, DC, pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong. Apparently for that reason the child-sex-ring accusations focused on the pizza restaurant and used the hashtag #pizzagate. The allegations were frequently retweeted by bots – programs designed to spread certain types of messages – contributing to the impression that many people were taking “Pizzagate” seriously. The story, amazingly, was also retweeted by General Michael Flynn, who is soon to be President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser.

Even after Trump’s election – and despite debunking by the New York Times and the Washington Post – the story continued to spread. Comet Ping Pong was harassed by constant, abusive, and often threatening phone calls. When the manager approached the DC police, he was told the rumors were constitutionally protected speech.

Edgar Welch, a Christian who has Bible verses tattooed on his back, was one of Jones’s listeners. On December 4, he drove 350 miles from his home in North Carolina to Comet Ping Pong, armed with an assault rifle, a revolver, and a knife. He allowed guests and staff to leave while he searched for enslaved children supposedly hidden in tunnels. He fired his rifle at least once, to open a locked door. After finding no children, he surrendered to police.

Fake news – “active misinformation” that is packaged to look as if it comes from a serious news site – is a threat to democratic institutions. There have been less absurd examples, including a fake report of a nuclear threat by Israel’s defense minister that misled his Pakistani counterpart into retweeting the report and warning Israel that Pakistan, too, is a nuclear power.

President Barack Obama acknowledged the danger to democratic freedoms when speaking to the press in Germany shortly after the US election. Whether or not fake news cost Clinton the presidency, it plainly could cause a candidate to lose an election and upset international relations. It is also contrary to one of the fundamental premises on which democracy rests: that voters can make informed choices between contending candidates.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution states that. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” By 1919, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of those words had led to the doctrine that Congress could prohibit speech only if it posed “a clear and present danger” of serious harm.

That position was further refined in what is perhaps the greatest defense of freedom of speech by an American judge: Louis Brandeis’s concurring opinion in the 1927 case of Whitney v. California. Brandeis described freedom of speech and assembly as “functions essential to effective democracy.” He appealed to “courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government.” On that basis, for speech to pose a clear and present danger that could justify prohibiting it, the harm the speech would cause must be so imminent that it could preclude any opportunity to discuss fully what had been said. If, Brandeis insisted, there is “time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Today, it is difficult to have so much confidence in the power of “free and fearless reasoning,” especially if it is supposed to be “applied through the processes of popular government” – which presumably requires that it influence elections. Similarly, Brandeis’s belief that “more speech, not enforced silence” is the remedy for “falsehood and fallacies” looks naïve, especially if applied in an election campaign.

What, though, is the alternative? What Jones said about Clinton is surely defamation, and she could bring a civil suit against him; but that would be costly and time-consuming, most likely taking years to move through the courts. In any case, civil defamation lawsuits are effective only against those who have the assets to pay whatever damages are awarded.

What about criminal libel? In the United Kingdom, “defamatory libel” was for many centuries a criminal offense, but it fell into disuse and was abolished in 2010. In the US, criminal libel is not a federal offense. It continues to be a crime in some states, but few cases are brought.

A report in 2015 by A. Jay Wagner and Anthony L. Fargo for the International Press Institute describes many of the recent cases as “petty” and regards the civil libel law as a better recourse for “personal grievances.” The report concludes that criminal libel has become “redundant and unnecessary.”

Recent examples of fake news suggest that Wagner and Fargo’s conclusion was premature. To accuse, during an election campaign, a US presidential candidate of personally murdering children is not petty, and civil libel law provides no adequate remedy. In the Internet age, is it time for the legal pendulum to swing back toward the offense of criminal libel?

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Animal Liberation, The Life You Can Save, The Most Good You Can Do, and, most recently, Ethics in the Real World.

By Peter Singer

Water as a Force for Peace

MUMBAI – The changing of the guard on the 38th floor of the United Nations building in New York, with António Guterres taking over for Ban Ki-moon as UN Secretary-General, has taken place at a time when notions about peace and conflict are undergoing a subtle change. In particular, the role of resources – and especially water – is getting the recognition it deserves.


This has been a long time coming. Both Ban and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, have argued for some two decades that protecting and sharing natural resources, particularly water, is critical to peace and security. But it was not until last November that the issue gained widespread acknowledgement, with Senegal – that month’s UN Security Council president – holding the UN’s first-ever official debate on water, peace, and security.

Open to all UN member states, the debate brought together representatives of 69 governments, which together called for water to be transformed from a potential source of crisis into an instrument of peace and cooperation. A few weeks later, Guterres appointed Amina Mohammed, a former Nigerian environment minister, as his deputy secretary-general.

The growing recognition of water’s strategic relevance reflects global developments. In the last three years, the Islamic State (ISIS) captured the Tabqa, Tishrin, Mosul, and Fallujah dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. ISIS subsequently lost control of all of them, but not before using them to flood or starve downstream populations, to pressure them to surrender.

Many analysts hope that ISIS will finally be eliminated from Iraq and Syria in the next few months. But that does not mean that the group will disband; on the contrary, it may well relocate to the border areas between Libya and Chad, putting West African cities and water installations at risk.

This tactic is not exclusive to ISIS. Extremist groups in South Asia have also threatened to attack water infrastructure. And of course state actors, too, can use water resources to gain a strategic advantage.

The importance of water in the twenty-first century – comparable to that of oil in the twentieth – can hardly be overstated. Yet some strategic experts continue to underestimate it. The reality is that oil has alternatives like natural gas, wind, solar, and nuclear energy. By contrast, for industry and agriculture as much as for drinking and sanitation, the only alternative to water, as former Slovenian President Danilo Türk once put it, is water.

The same is true for trade. Consider the Rio Chagres. While it may not be widely known, it is vitally important, as it feeds the Panama Canal, through which 50% of trade between Asia and the Americas flows. There is no risk of the natural depletion of the river flow for the next hundred years, but, in the event of a security crisis in Central America, it could be taken over by rogue forces. The impact on the global economy would be enormous.

The consensus on the need to protect water resources and installations in conflict zones is clear. What is less clear is how to do it. Unlike medicines and food packets, water cannot be airdropped into conflict zones. And UN Peacekeeping Forces are badly overstretched.

The International Committee of the Red Cross does negotiate safe passage for technicians to inspect and repair damage to water pipes and storage systems in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine; but each passage needs to be negotiated with governments in conflict and rebel commanders – a long and cumbersome process. A better approach would be for great powers, with their considerable influence, to negotiate short-term ceasefires in areas experiencing protracted conflict, specifically to repair and restore water systems.

To pave the way for such an approach, however, the UN Security Council will have to declare water a “strategic resource of humanity” and adopt a resolution to protect water resources and installations, similar to Resolution 2286, adopted last May to protect medical facilities in armed conflicts.

In the longer term, countries that share riparian systems will need to establish regional security arrangements to preserve and protect their resources. With collaborative management underpinning collective protection, water, often a source of competition and conflict, could become a facilitator of peace and cooperation.

Denis Sassou-Nguesso, President of the Republic of the Congo, is at the forefront of this movement, by leading a group of eight governments toward the establishment of the Blue Fund for the Congo Basin. If successful, the Fund will help to mitigate climate change, create new avenues of river-based employment, and promote collective security in an unstable region. The Africa Action Summit in Marrakesh two months ago described the Fund as one of the four key ideas that can transform the continent.

Last March, on World Water Day, Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal and I called for the establishment of a Marshall Fund for the world’s shared river basins. The Blue Fund for the Congo Basin is a step in that direction. Now, we need similar funds to emerge to protect all of the world’s 263 shared river basins and lakes. It is a huge challenge; but, given the power of water to sow conflict and support peace, we must confront it head-on.

Sundeep Waslekar is President of Strategic Foresight Group.

Africa’s Unique Vulnerability to Violent Extremism

ADDIS ABABA – Africa bears the brunt of lives lost, economies ruined, and relationships fractured by terrorism. It is the continent where al-Qaeda launched its war against the United States in 1998, by bombing the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; where Boko Haram kidnapped 276 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014; and where 147 students were killed in their sleep at Kenya’s Garissa University in 2015.


While these attacks did garner the world’s attention, most people do not realize that, in the past five years alone, 33,000 people have died in terrorism-related violence in Africa. Violent extremism and groups espousing it are threatening to reverse Africa’s development gains not only in the near term, but also for decades to come.

African countries are particularly vulnerable to violent ideologues, owing to the prevalence of weak institutions and ungoverned territory where extremist groups can germinate. Add to this the mismanagement of ethnic and religious diversity, stir in a large and growing cohort of unemployed and digitally connected youth, and the continent offers ideal conditions for mayhem.

Emulating countries elsewhere, African governments have responded to violent extremism primarily by putting “hard” security first. But this strategy has not reduced extremist groups’ potency or limited their reach. In fact, there is evidence that an exclusively military response can be a waste of resources, or even do more harm than good. What is missing is a deeper examination of root causes, particularly underlying development challenges.

Some people claim that the connection between socioeconomic conditions and violent extremism is specious, because most poor and marginalized communities do not join terrorist groups. But this argument fails to address the relevant issue: poverty, social marginalization, and political disenfranchisement are the fertilizers extremist groups need to take root and grow. Around the world, policies and operational responses to violent extremism are largely informed by theory, rather than drawing on thorough empirical evidence of the personal motivations and structural factors that drive people to commit terrorist acts.

I recently visited Galkayo, in North Somalia, to interview captured al-Shabaab fighters as part of an ongoing United Nations Development Programme study of the roots of African extremism. What struck me was that, apart from their being imprisoned, these young men seemed entirely normal, and their individual journeys toward extremism were not particularly informed by religion.

Rather, what united the young al-Shabaab militants I spoke to was a shared experience of deprivation. They had all grown up surrounded by conflict, and none of them had ever been given a good reason to view the government as a positive force in their lives. When I asked whether they went to public school, most could not even fathom the idea of free education or health care. These children and young adults are by-products of a failed state and society; they have spent their entire lives in an environment that is ripe for terrorist recruitment and exploitation.

Just as tuberculosis infects a body already compromised by HIV, extremism thrives under the right conditions, such as those created by the conflict in Somalia, or the political fragility and social neglect in northeastern Nigeria, where many interviewees cited scarce access to both religious and secular education.

The UNDP’s primary research into extremists’ personal motivations – based on more than 350 interviews with formerly active violent extremists in prisons and transitional centers in Cameroon, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and Uganda – is the most extensive project of its kind in Africa, if not globally.

Our preliminary results suggest that the ideology behind violent extremism is delivered with a flexible marketing strategy, whereby extremist groups tailor their message for potential recruits. For the unemployed or the poor, they offer paid jobs; for marginalized ethnic and religious minorities, they offer recourse through violence; and for the middle class, they offer an adventure, a sense of “purpose,” and an escape from mundanity. The ideology mutates to exploit its intended recruit’s vulnerabilities.

Our research, which will be completed in early 2017, aims to shed light on individual journeys to extremism, through the words and perspectives of people who have been involved in terrorist organizations in Africa. It will also provide communities, other researchers, and policymakers with empirical evidence on which to base their future interventions. 

One thing we already know for certain is that poverty and underdevelopment can no longer be ignored if we are ever to combat violent extremism effectively. Addressing these issues, rather than just strengthening military and law-enforcement capacity, must be a high priority for any plausible strategy.

Mohamed Yahya is Africa Regional Program Coordinator for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

By Mohamed Yahya

The Fight for Ocean Health

NEW YORK – The ocean is changing – and not for the better. Well-established scientific evidence shows that it is becoming emptier, warmer, and more acidic, putting marine life under serious pressure. But there is good news: evidence also indicates that the ocean can regenerate, and the world has already agreed to enable that outcome.

The Sustainable Development Goal for the Ocean (SDG 14) was adopted by world leaders in September 2015 as part of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It includes vital targets, such as mitigating ocean acidification, securing habitat and species protections, reducing pollution substantially, and ending illegal fishing and subsidies that lead to overfishing.

Ultimately, SDG 14 promises to preserve the ocean and ensure its sustainable use in the future. But it can be realized only with bold and urgent action, buttressed by solidarity among governments, citizens, and business.

This week, governments and experts are gathering in New York to begin crafting a global “call for action” to implement SDG 14. The call, which will be launched in June, at the UN’s first-ever Ocean Conference, should include a firm commitment to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030, and ensure that the remaining 70% is sustainably managed. UN member states must also pledge to secure the extension of legal protections to high-seas biodiversity by closing the gaping governance loophole that exposes the ocean to plunder.

There is one more priority area that the call for action must address: climate change. In fact, a healthy ocean will be impossible to secure without also addressing this pressing global challenge. Achieving SDG 14 therefore demands that the international community reaffirm its commitment to the Paris climate agreement, and to announce concrete steps toward achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

To avoid more empty promises, all commitments must be backed up by a clear financing plan and subjected to regular accountability checks. Governments, the UN, and other actors should set a schedule for monitoring and check-ins, to keep delivery of the targets transparent, funded, and on schedule.

To support these efforts, we urge UN Secretary-General António Guterres to appoint a Special Representative for the Ocean, tasked with improving ocean governance and ensuring that the full potential of SDG 14 is realized. Such a representative must be given sufficient resources to do the job.

The ocean has suffered decades of abuse and neglect. It has been treated as a free-for-all garbage bin and race-to-the-bottom buffet. We have financed its destruction, with no regard for the consequences. But those consequences have become impossible to ignore. While we, as previous global ocean commissioners, had to campaign hard in 2014 for the ocean to have its own dedicated global goal, it is now hard to believe that the ocean’s position in the SDGs was ever in question. That is the sense that we should have in 2030, when the targets of SDG 14 are fully met.

The only way to get there is through concerted effort – and not just by the likes of ocean commissioners. People everywhere must stand up and demand real action to ensure the ocean’s regeneration. In short, the ocean must become everyone’s business.

To kick-start that process, we have joined the Ocean Unite network, which is galvanizing conservationists, business leaders, young people, and activists to take advantage of growing interest in these issues and create coalitions that can drive ocean health to the top of political and economic agendas worldwide.

Such efforts are already having an impact, with citizens mobilizing to defend the ocean and policymakers beginning to respond to their calls. Now, it is the business community’s turn to step up.

Business has a clear interest in reversing the decline in ocean health. The GDP derived from the ocean amounts to $2.5 trillion, or 5% of the world’s total GDP. That’s equivalent to the GDP of the world’s seventh-largest economy. The ocean is also the world’s biggest employer, directly supporting the livelihoods of more than three billion people, and is a source of food for over 2.6 billion. Restoring the ocean thus amounts to an unparalleled business opportunity.

But the ocean’s value goes far beyond economics. It provides half of the air we breathe, governs our weather, and helps to support peace and prosperity. The ocean’s future is the world’s future.

At a time when politics threatens to undermine cooperative action on the environment, fighting for our shared global environment is more important than ever. Our responsibility for the ocean’s health is as deep, fundamental, and permanent as our dependence on it. No political consideration can compete with that. Now is the time for all of us – citizens, business, and government – to unite and fight for our ocean.

José María Figueres, former President of Costa Rica, is Co-Chair of the Global Ocean Commission. Pascal Lamy, a former director-general of the World Trade Organization, is a Global Ocean Commissioner. John D. Podesta, Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001, is the founder of the Center for American Progress.

The Anti-Science Seed Treaty

STANFORD – In September, the United States ratified the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, known as the International Seed Treaty. Like so many international agreements crafted under the auspices of the United Nations, it is severely flawed. Indeed, the Seed Treaty is a politically correct, anti-technology fiasco.


To be sure, the treaty, which entered into force in 2004, emanates from some laudable intentions. But it is ultimately a jumble of pie-in-the-sky aspirations, translated into draconian legal constraints on the exchange of genetic resources (mainly seeds) among countries. The unreality of the treaty’s goals comes through in the official statement of its objectives: “the conservation and sustainable use of all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, for sustainable agriculture and food security.”

The guiding principle of the Seed Treaty is that genetic resources fall within the “sovereign right” of member states (that is, governments). This amounts to an explicit rejection of the long-standing understanding that genetic resources in plants and animals are the “common heritage of humanity.” It defies the notion that certain global resources, regarded as beneficial to all, should not be unilaterally exploited and monopolized by individuals, states, corporations, or other entities, but rather should be managed in ways that benefit all of humanity.

The Seed Treaty was motivated by fear of “biopiracy” – the pilfering of the world’s genetic resources by agricultural seed companies, which could then claim patents on them and wield monopoly control. But, though accusations of biopiracy may have emotional appeal, impartial analyses have shown that they have little factual basis. In fact, biopiracy is rare – so rare that it can be dealt with directly.

Instead, the world created a baroque, bureaucratic, politicized system that systematically inhibits scientific research, plant breeding, and the creation of intellectual property. The Seed Treaty achieves this by establishing a multilateral system for access to a negotiated list of agricultural genetic resources.

The Seed Treaty also brought under the control of its parties and secretariat the 15 research institutions that comprise the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an influential global research partnership. When a country ratifies the Seed Treaty, it agrees that its own seed banks – in the US, the repository at Fort Collins, Colorado – will adhere to the same rules as the CGIAR centers.

But common rules are little help. Unfortunately, as a result of the Seed Treaty, countries increasingly treat their genetic resources like a dog treats a bone: no sharing allowed, even among their own scientists and plant breeders, while most international exchanges of genetic resources have been shut down over the last 12 years. The CGIAR centers have been able to continue exchanges of genetic resources, but the process is now much more complicated and demanding that it was before the Seed Treaty came into force.

For the US, the precise impact of the Seed Treaty’s implementation is difficult to determine, not least because the treaty contains wishy-washy, ambiguous phrasing that obscures its meaning and requirements. What is clear is that the experience of countries that have implemented the treaty has not been particularly positive, unless those countries have a high tolerance for bureaucratic regulatory regimes that stifle innovation and development in the name of lofty aspirations.

The Seed Treaty is cut from the same anti-capitalist, anti-science, anti-innovation cloth as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It also mirrors the flagrantly unscientific, anti-genetic-engineering Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the CBD. And it has much in common with the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress to the Cartagena Protocol – yet another anti-genetic-engineering screed, which accomplishes little except to frighten potential entrepreneurs away from agricultural biotechnology. It is overwrought, confusing, and complex – in short, inimical to innovations that could benefit the world’s poor.

The Seed Treaty runs counter to science, agricultural development, and intellectual property rights. That, in the policymaking game, is three strikes – and should be an out. The US Senate, which ratified the Seed Treaty, should reconsider, as Article 32 of the treaty allows. Thereafter, the US State Department would notify the treaty’s secretariat, with official withdrawal taking effect a year later.

President-elect Donald Trump, author of The Art of the Deal, has promised Americans that he will put an end to bad ones. Withdrawal from the Seed Treaty would be an auspicious start to making good on that pledge.

Henry I. Miller, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the United States Food and Drug Administration. Drew L. Kershen is an emeritus professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

Trump’s Extreme Oligarchy

WASHINGTON, DC – US President-elect Donald Trump is filling his cabinet with rich people. According to the latest count, his nominees include five billionaires and six multimillionaires. This is what is known as oligarchy: direct control of the state by people with substantial private economic power. Given that the Republicans also control both houses of Congress – and will soon make many judicial appointments – there is virtually no effective constraint on the executive branch.

Read more ...

The Next Migrant Wave

MANILA – Imagine that you are a farmer. Your crops are withering as weather patterns become more volatile, your well water is too salty to drink, and rice is too expensive to buy at the market. So, you leave home in search of a better life.

Read more ...

Greece’s Perpetual Crisis

ATHENS – Since the summer of 2015, Greece has (mostly) dropped out of the news, but not because its economic condition has stabilized. A prison is not newsworthy as long as the inmates suffer quietly. It is only when they stage a rebellion, and the authorities crack down, that the satellite trucks appear.

Read more ...

The Promise of Digital Finance

BERKELEY – An economic development revolution lies literally in the palm of a single hand. As mobile phones and digital technologies rapidly spread around the world, their implications for economic development, and particularly finance, have yet to be fully realized. The sooner that changes, the better for people worldwide.

Read more ...

How Climate Action Can Make America Great

SINGAPORE – Climate change is the single biggest challenge facing humankind. Yet the next president of the United States – the world’s second-largest greenhouse-gas emitter and a critical actor in climate policy – does not believe it is happening, or at least that humans have a role in driving it. If Donald Trump actually wants to “Make America Great Again,” as his campaign slogan declared, he will need to change his attitude and embrace the climate agenda.

Read more ...
Top
We use cookies to improve our website. By continuing to use this website, you are giving consent to cookies being used. More details…