14 Apr 2015

Meet the violent anti-fake news website movement

It all started in July of last year, Tim Timothy was browsing the internet when he came across an article titled ‘Everyone In Middle East Given Own Country In 317,000,000-State Solution’. As a keen observer of the region Timothy, who’s studying for a master’s in International Relations, was aghast by the news. He read the article over and over, and every time it seemed stranger and stranger, he was nearly moved to tears by the prospect.

What Timothy did next changed his life forever. He shared the article on his Facebook page with a heartfelt message about the sad fate of the Middle East, an area he had grown fond of since spending a week in Morocco. Timothy wasn’t prepared for what happened next as his friends, and gradually strangers, started mocking him in the comments box, telling him that the article was satirical and ridiculing him for his gullibility. Timothy deleted the post but it was too late, someone had already taken a screen shot of his post and it was shared widely on social media and he was bombarded by sarcastic messages for days.

Timothy had had enough, he started looking for people who have been through similar experiences and talking to them and eventually the nucleus of a new movement emerged: the anti-fake news website movement known as For Real. The movement started with a small demonstration in Timothy’s hometown and over the months spread to other towns and cities in America and at the beginning of this year it went global, with large demonstrations in France, Germany, Egypt and India among many others. At the last count, the movement had spread to 75 countries and it will probably reach every single country in the world by the end of the year.

At first, the demonstrations were peaceful but as governments around the world refused to yield to pressure and ban fake news websites, the protests turned ugly. The ‘counter-demonstrations’ by groups mocking the protestors only made the situation worse, and drove a tiny radical minority within the movement to violence. Timothy himself has distanced himself from this splinter group, but an observer from the group For Real Watch, which was set up at the end of last year to monitor the protests, alleged that he had a direct role in orchestrating the violence.

In an interview with us Timothy expressed his frustration with the governments of the world for failing to take action against fake news websites. He spoke sincerely and one could not but be touched by his painful story and the ordeal he has been through. But beyond his boyish and innocent looks, many argue there is a sinister mind intent on doing anything to achieve his goal, and there are many like him within the movement.

‘I don’t see the point of fake news websites, they are misleading and irritating. Why would anyone read them? Most of them are not even funny, even after they explain the joke to me. Why not watch a Ben Stiller movie if you want to laugh? Why insist on inflicting pain on people like me? Look at this article on The Onion, ‘CIA Realizes It's Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years’, it’s formulaic and not funny at all. What does it contribute to the world?’

Governments started taking the movement seriously since it turned violent, but only Egypt so far has indicated that it would be willing to contemplate a ban on fake news websites. Most other governments see a ban as an infringement on the principle of free speech, although many are now considering a scheme to label articles clearly as satire and Sweden is initiating a programme to offer free counselling to people duped by fake news stories. Canada now has a requirement to label articles in the beginning, middle and at the end of fake news stories just in case someone forgot that they are reading satire halfway through.

Meanwhile, the movement continues to grow and become increasingly more violent. At the last protest in Stuttgart, a hardcore group of protesters smashed the windows of several shops and set two cars on fire before the police managed to contain them. The movement has taken a xenophobic turn in parts of France and Germany as well, with signs reading ‘Out With Anglo-Saxon Humour’ seen in several of the demonstrations.

One thing is certain for now: the movement that Tim Timothy inspired will not go away any time soon. And the debate is intensifying around the world, with many people saying in opinion polls that the principle of free speech isn’t worth the trouble, even if they weren’t bothered personally by fake news websites. There is clearly a shifting tide and many commentators doubt that any government is sufficiently committed to free speech to resist the pressure to ban them. Experts are predicting a rough ride for those websites in the years to come. 

*The warnings will read like this:

This is a work of satire, all events and characters described are imagined and not real.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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