Last week was a big news week. The pandemic rolled on as the U.S. exceeded 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. Unemployment got worse. Minneapolis police started a national firestorm with the death in custody of a black man, George Floyd. And oh, by the way, the Chinese became more aggressive in Hong Kong and the economy continued to flounder despite baby steps toward reopening.
With that news backdrop, it was easy to miss President Donald Trump’s latest shots in an attack on social media networks — specifically Twitter and Facebook.
This fight has been brewing for a while. It is closely related to Trump’s attempts to label mainstream news outlets as “fake news” and respected journalists as bad reporters. Trump clearly has a loose relationship with the facts on many issues and an affinity for conspiracy theories. He has often used Twitter to express opinions, theories, and threats.
Many have criticized Twitter and Facebook for “failing to do anything” about being used as a platform for disinformation. They have been charged as collaborators in a war on the truth. Although Facebook has publicly disavowed any responsibility for the accuracy of any statements made by politicians or groups on its service, Twitter on Friday attached a “fact check” disclaimer on statements made by Trump on its service.
Not surprisingly, given his volatile nature, Trump reacted strongly to this perceived insult. Through his press secretary, he has threatened to regulate or even shut down social media platforms that criticize or correct him via executive order.
As is true of so many things involving Trump, there was immediate and visceral reaction from both sides. His supporters yelled “hell yeah” and “about time,” while his detractors expressed outrage (yet again) that he was assaulting freedom of the press. Everything is filtered through and amplified by one’s feelings about the current occupant of the White House.
In reality, I doubt there is much of a threat here. I don’t question Trump’s anger at Twitter or his wish that he could tell everyone what to do; he clearly has a huge ego and a thin skin. But his anger remains constrained by the U.S. Constitution, the judiciary, and a Democratic House of Representatives. It’s also moderated by his own microscopic attention span.
His threatened assault shines a bright spotlight on the neverland of social media, however. The First Amendment of the Constitution clearly identifies freedom of the press as one of the essential freedoms that Americans enjoy. For as much as Trump rails against CNN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post, any threats to regulate them are as impactful as spitting on a rolling freight train.
Each of us should decide what to read or listen to and assign whatever weight to it that we choose.
Freedom of the press is embedded along with the right to religion and assembly, and to petition the government about our grievances. There is a very clear and unambiguous protection of our right to disagree with and complain about our government. And nowhere does the constitution require us to be fair and accurate. Nor does it preclude ad hominem attacks on a sitting president (or senator, governor, or representative). Well before Watergate and Nixon, American media criticized the constitution and the Civil War. It criticized both Washington and Lincoln. Politicians don’t have to like it, but they do have to take it. We have a long history of partisan press irritating incumbents.
But social media platforms are not “the press.” They are more akin to the Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park in London, a venue where individuals of any stripe can stand up and express their opinions — however half-baked. This is essentially the argument that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is making: that it’s not Facebook’s job to vet the opinions expressed on its service. Caveat emptor. Each of us should decide what to read or listen to and assign whatever weight to it that we choose.
Zuckerberg’s argument is self-serving and may be disingenuous, but it actually has some logical merit and gives credit to us as readers. However, I think in the end, he’s letting Facebook off the hook too easily.
In a less technically sophisticated world, it was easier for individuals to recognize who was speaking and ascertain their affiliations and beliefs. Now, in an age of deepfakes and bots, there is legitimately fake news — not what CNN’s Anderson Cooper said last night but stories manufactured out of whole cloth. Facebook enables these fakes to hide their true roots and gain the appearance of legitimacy via promoted social sharing. For a nonpolitical example of the risks of this, look back on the anti-vaccine movement. The big technology platforms add an implied endorsement and aura of legitimacy by showing content to individuals.
It’s time for Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms to grow up and take responsibility for the quality of content that they distribute. They should no longer turn a blind eye to manufactured “truth.” Nor is Google exempt, both in its search engine and through YouTube. It bears responsibility for where it sends people. In the end, this is an investment in the long-term health of their business.
I applaud Twitter’s approach to Trump’s tweets. They didn’t shut down his account, they didn’t block his tweet, but they did say that the tweet was not consistent with known facts. This is an important first step toward giving readers the context that they need to consider an argument presented on their platforms.
This is not an abridgment of anyone’s right to free speech. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said more than 100 years ago in the Schenk case: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”
If they do not grow up and take responsibility, Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube not only risk enabling someone to “yell fire” — they are offering him a megaphone.
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