College of Business

16th Annual Ethics and Responsible Forum 2018

The Ethics of Fake News: Who Controls the Future of Democracy?

"What is the impact on democratic discourse when fact and fiction, truth and untruth, opinion and evidence cannot be differentiated or discerned?"

— Shyam Kamath, Dean, College of Business

The 16th annual Ethics and Responsible Business Forum was held on March 14, 2018, at the CSUMB University Center. Attended by 350 students, staff, and faculty, as well as members of the local community, this year’s Forum focused on the timely and relevant topic of fake news—its impact on a democratic society and the implications for ethics and responsibility in journalism.

Public concern is increasing over the pace at which false or uncorroborated news is spreading, as well as the sheer ease with which some actors perceive and label actual facts as fake. The phenomenon of fake news can be attributed to recent trends such as the fragmentation and polarization of news outlets and their audiences, as well as the rapid development of social media and blogs to support news sharing.

Two recent examples of fake news that were raised were ‘pizzagate,’ in which fabricated information about a pizzeria was responded to with real guns, and Russian meddling that potentially swayed results of US and European elections. The increased skepticism on once unquestioned and trusted institutions highlights the material impact of false information in society and raises the call for an urgent discussion and debate on how to mitigate its effects. A particular point of focus in this discussion was the threat fake news imposes on the democratic process, as democracy is predicated upon the ability of officials and activists to convey ideas through communication channels that do not twist their messages and a public who are informed about issues in order to debate and make informed decisions.

While some have blamed technology (e.g., fake social media accounts run by bots) and profit-driven tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, who benefit from “surveillance capitalism,” others criticize the media for not taking time for in-depth reporting and fact-checking, due to an ever-shortening news cycle that encourages pulling out all the stops to publish “breaking” news. Yet others blame the government for lack of transparency and for spreading incomplete or incorrect information leading to a Big Brother “surveillance state.”

Keynote Speakers and Panelists Debate Their Views

Keynote speakers Renée DiResta, tech entrepreneur and Head of Policy at Data for Democracy, and Mark Scarberry, Professor of Law at the Pepperdine University School of Law, were invited to debate their views. The two contributed their insights to a discussion around potential solutions: doing nothing and leaving news consumers to responsibly decide what is “real” and what is “fake” news; technological intervention; media censoring; anti-fake news activism; new forms of journalism; tighter regulations or some combination of these. What responsibilities do search engines and social media platforms have?

Enriching the discussion were comments made by panelists, David Greene, Senior Staff Attorney and Civil Liberties Director; Mridula Mascarenhas, Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Communication at California State University, Monterey Bay; and Sarah Rubin, Editor of Monterey County Weekly. The discussion was moderated by Erik Cushman, Publisher at Monterey County Weekly.

If we perceive social networks to be the new public square, DiResta believes they should be treated in the same manner we treat other public spheres, i.e., regulation through social norms and rules. She argued that the First Amendment may not be the appropriate framing to address the issue of fake news on the internet because social platforms are governed by terms of service. Drawing comparisons to regulation after the collapse of the financial markets, DiResta asserted that the marketplace for ideas is currently polluted and susceptible to manipulation. Doing nothing is no longer an option, so DiResta favors external governance of social platforms to ensure transparency and accountability. She pointed out that this approach is not new because, as it stands, there is no neutral algorithm, as platforms are already moderating what we see. DiResta concluded that the provider platforms are in the best position to remediate harms, specifically, through better moderation, not censorship, to fix the dissemination of false news.

Scarberry offered a framework for approaching social media regulation by asking whether it is wise, constitutional, and practical. Building on his legal expertise, Scarberry focused on the constitutional aspect. Scarberry also carefully noted that the First Amendment does not protect censorship from non-governmental bodies for platforms like Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter. However, he took the First Amendment stance, by arguing that government censorship, in general, is a cure that will be worse than the disease; in allowing the government to decide what is true, the potential for abuse of power is simply too great. In the case of fake news on social networks, Scarberry pointed out that while social media platform companies cannot be forced to censor, they are within their rights to do so.

According to him, the question we need to ask is will social media platforms use these rights responsibly, and do we trust these oligarchs to be the arbiters of truth?

At the conclusion of this lively debate, the audience remained split regarding which side offered the best solution. Yet the discussion highlighted the necessary starting point of having a clear conceptualization and consensus on what comprises ‘fake news’ to move forward towards problem-solving. The audience left the venue reminded of their responsibility to be discerning users and distributors of information, and the campus community was invigorated with a commitment to the important task of equipping themselves and students with information literacy.


Erik Cushman

Publisher, Monterey County Weekly

Keynote Speakers

Renée DiResta

Head of Policy, Data for Democracy

Mark Scarberry

Professor of Law, Pepperdine University


Sarah Rubin

Editor & Journalist, Monterey County Weekly

David Greene

Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation