Over the past months, social media frenzies and political rallies against “Fake News” have taken public sentiment by storm. This phenomenon, however, is not new. In fact, Fake News has existed since the invention of print. Although it is often presumed to be extreme in nature, Fake News can take form as inaccurate or incomplete reporting that is not necessarily intentional.

Some have identified corporate and private entities as contributors to the Fake News movement. These entities typically have an economic stake in policy debates and sponsor university researchers who agree to influence public policy in pro-industry ways. Unfortunately, most of these researchers publish their work in university law journals—most of which are not peer-reviewed for unsupported claims.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Google’s “little-known program” that financially induces legal researchers to defend against regulations that threaten the company’s market dominance. The report revealed that Google has paid over $1 million for this type of research, which is pocket change when compared to the $2.71 billion fine Google recently faced from European regulators.

Google responded to the reports cited by The Wall Street Journal, stating that Google provides support to academics and institutions “to help them undertake further research, and to raise awareness of their ideas.” The tech company also stated that when they provide financial support, “[they] expect and require grantees to properly disclose [their] funding,” and “[i]f there are ever omissions or unclear disclosures, [they] work to tighten our requirements.”

As of now, it is unclear which party is the bearer of truth. However, these practices are generally troubling because, unlike the extreme kinds of Fake News, some speculate that Google’s wish-list policy papers are said to be published by prestigious universities that possess the trust of the public. It is one thing to contribute to public lobbyists to advance industry causes, but another to secretly solicit work from private scholars—many of whom may be inclined to take the opportunity in stride because of the decline in university funding.

It has long been established that food, drug, and oil corporations privately-fund research as policy-influencing tool. Nevertheless, Google’s potential participation in this practice introduces different concerns because of the implications of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Simply put, the Commutations Decency Act provides protection for the private regulation of offensive Internet material. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In other words, computer services providers, like Google, are not considered publishers and are therefore not legally liable for statements made by their users.

This is not to say that all pro-industry scholarship is inaccurate. Instead, it is to call attention to university publications that can be misleading because of the lack of peer-review processes and potential undisclosed financial biases. The nexus of corporate-funded legal publications and the implications of the Communications Decency Act is concerning for both free speech and accountability advocates. Since the public relies on legal scholars to be accurate in their conveyance of policy-oriented information, law journals must act as gatekeepers. As such, requiring peer-review processes and financial contribution disclosures could reduce the pervasion of Fake News in institutionally published research and maintain public trust.

–Reem Blaik

Comments are closed.