Election results notwithstanding, our Republic faces several dangers. One of the biggest is the changing nature of the public square. I can’t imagine that the Founding Fathers could ever comprehend communication methods such as Facebook and Twitter. These two privately owned means of communication have become modern America’s life-blood of communication. It is instantaneous. It is wide reaching. It is measurable. It is the modern version of the public square…and it can be censored.
The latter is the problem. Both Facebook and Twitter have announced efforts to curtail “fake” news on what have collectively become known as “alt” news sites. I can understand why. The sheer magnitude of these instruments of communication wield great power. They are susceptible to fraud, lies, coercion, and abuse. That can be disturbing to the corporations that own these two pipelines especially in dealing with issues of liability.
The problem we face is the definition of “curtailment” of “fake” news. That is the politically correct nomenclature for censorship…because that is what it is. Whether we like to admit it or not, we have censorship in America already. You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. You can’t make threats about blowing up an airplane. You can’t have conversations with groups antagonistic to the United States like ISIS. Then there are the liable and slander laws. There is no doubt that people have abused Facebook and Twitter. I know. I have been on the receiving end of some of the most vile and violent comments whenever I post something.
The most obvious question is who determines what is “fake” news. What is legitimate censorship vs. suppression of free speech and political ideas? When the square is privately owned…those are serious issues. What is dogma to a conservative may be pure heresy to a liberal. When the political views of the owner of the square are liberal, that is really scary to a conservative.
I got into a discussion with some folks last week about the origins of Planned Parenthood. In my view, it has a shady past and anyone proclaiming themselves to be a progressive in the tradition of Margaret Sanger should be careful about what they say. Yet the people with whom I was having the discussion claimed very loudly, as most liberals do, that I am using hate speech. No…I was stating verifiable fact.
Who wins out if those issues were to come up on Facebook or Twitter for review? Would the politically correct liberal view based in ideology be the “truth”? Would the conservative view of the truth be considered “fake” news because although it is factually correct, is hate speech in view of those who are liberal? Given the political bent of the tech industry generally, my guess would be the former. That would mark the end of our Republic.
The law has not caught up to what Facebook and Twitter have become…the number one means of communication in America relating to all sorts of speech. I would not want to be those charged with the task making these types of decisions. Perhaps “fake” news is like pornography…I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.
Whatever the solution may be, as Facebook and Twitter try to implement safeguards against “fake” news, lawyers will be making lots of money as they litigate the definitions of censorship, freedom of the speech, freedom of the press, and what is a public square. Maybe we will get a Bill Clinton solution. It depends on what the definition of “is” is.
Mark G. Mangie