5.4.5.4 Prohibiting Some Types of Lying

As referred to previously, it is socially unacceptable to habitually tell lies (4.4.2.5) – but that does not mean that there should be an all-encompassing law against lying.  Such a law would be unenforceable in practice, given the enormous number of ‘little white lies’ that are told to soothe people’s feelings and sometimes raising questions about whether a lie was intentional.  It may be thought appropriate to criminalise some types of lying, though, where damage can be proved – but there are practical difficulties.

Libel and slander can damage people’s reputations, so it is appropriate to consider legal action against them.   People can take each other to court in some jurisdictions, to sue for damages using the law of torts (5.2.4), but that has two serious disadvantages: the cost might prevent many people from being able to bring a prosecution; and the further publicity provided by the court case might exacerbate the damage caused.

An issue that has come to the fore recently is that of subverting political discourse with ‘fake news’, as discussed later (6.4.2.6).  This is serious, having been credited with changing the outcome of elections, but there are practical difficulties in criminalising it: it isn’t possible to prosecute perpetrators in other countries (5.3.4); it spreads so fast on social media that the law could never catch up with it; people might not realise that it is fake; and it is possible to use the formula “it has been reported that…” to evade responsibility for the accuracy of the story.  In practice, it is currently being combated by putting pressure on service-providers to remove damaging material.

The issues raised by telling lies to stir up ethnic conflict are raised in the next section (5.4.6), as part of a wider topic.

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