Social media must confront fake news

Carl Parker

Today we hear a lot about “fake news.” It appears that at least from the Washington sector, fake news is most often described as any news unfavorable to those in power. Our country’s, founders such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and others, made it abundantly clear that part of the essential lifeblood of a free democratic society is free speech, along with a free and independent news media.

Hamilton laid out a plan for attacking democracy. The first element of the plan would be to undermine a free press, calling it into question and substituting news that was only favorable to those in power. It is one of the ways Adolph Hitler captured Germany. Control of the press is a hallmark of dictatorships throughout the world. A truly independent press can be irksome and bothersome to those in office, even in a free society. The freedom to criticize, however, is essential for free speech as well as a decent, vital and independent media.

There is a threat probably more dangerous to democracy than the nuclear program of North Korea. That threat is in the form of our social media: Twitter and Facebook, along with others. Unfortunately, our dedication to constitutionally guaranteed free speech makes us vulnerable to true fake news. Recent studies have demonstrated that millions were spent on producing hundreds of thousands of fake tweets or entries on all aspects of social media. Several million people were exposed to outright lies, made up stories and political myths. One such myth widely published was that Hillary Clinton was part of a ring promoting juvenile prostitution and sex crimes out of a pizza parlor. You might ask who in their right mind would believe such an outrageous publication, but apparently there are those in our nation who did. The difficulty we face is how to limit such trash without seriously diminishing our rights of free speech.

While most of the responsibility for curbing this threat should go to those sponsors or creators of the offending media, government still does have a role. During World War II, for example, the media was patriotic and very careful in not disclosing troop movements or intelligence that could have endangered those in our military. Publishers of social media should now assume the same degree of responsibility and act in the best interest of the United States. As an example, free speech gives you the right to say what you choose, but you should be willing to stand behind what you say. Podcasts, Twitter or other such means of communication should also require revelation of the source of things broadcast on such media. Hopefully, had social media revealed that Russian interests were the source of thousands of stories published to millions of people, they would not have been taken nearly as seriously. Steps should be taken as well to curb secret contributions in politics and dark money emerging in the billions from phony 501(c)(3) so-called charitable organizations.

We should address this threat to free speech by using our free speech to communicate with our elected officials and demand that they act responsibility and promptly to defend us against these threats to our freedoms.