Social media should be legally responsible for their content – Smithfield Times


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The Washington Newseum, which closed at the end of 2019, celebrated the First Amendment in a number of ways, including posting quotes relating to free expression.

One of my favorites was, “Free speech is not a license to be stupid.”

It also shouldn’t be a license to intentionally spread false information, and yet it appears to have become an American hobby, and the result is a poisoned political and social environment that has dangerously divided our nation.

Oddly enough, the origin of the Internet’s love affair with lies seems to have been the insertion of a paragraph into a federal law known as the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This law was intended as a means to keep indecent content away from the emergence of the times. the Internet. Two lawmakers – one Republican, the other Democrat – defended the addition of Section 230, which reads:

“No provider or user of an interactive computing service will be considered the publisher or speaker of any information provided by any other information content provider.”

Newspapers, magazines, broadcast channels and networks are all “publishers” of the information they broadcast and are therefore responsible for its content. In short, they can be sued for the material they post, whether or not they generated that material.

The wording inserted in the Decency Act was intended to allow Internet platform operators to regulate what was published on their sites without being considered publishers. The idea was that this would give them the flexibility they needed to control “bad” content.

He did exactly the opposite. Section 230 allowed Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to declare that since they are not legally considered by law to be “publishers”, they are not legally responsible for what is posted on their platforms. shapes. This can – and does include – savage political conspiracy theories that are read and repeated by millions of people eager to reinforce their own biased political beliefs.

The result of Section 230 is that the Internet – which is the second greatest literacy tool in history, the first being the printing press – has also become the medium through which big lies can be spread by greedy liars devoured by equally enthusiastic recipients.

The Big Lie concept is not new. It has been used throughout history to lull, inflame, or misdirect audiences. Until the advent of the Internet, spreading the Big Lie was a challenge. Social media, hiding behind Section 230, eliminated this challenge. From white nationalists to radical leftists, the internet has been used effectively to attract people with similar passions and similar prejudices.

It won’t be easy to get out of the labyrinth of lies that drives politics, but it is not impossible. We have to teach ourselves and our children and grandchildren to recognize fact from fiction, and the starting point should be the ability to distinguish between the two.

To get there, we have to look to the source, and the Furious Flo Facebook page is unlikely to be eligible. Neither Angry Al’s twitters, nor Angry Al’s tweets, nor what you call them. It takes discipline, but for those who care about the truth, the “Delete” button is the most important command on your computer.

But getting rid of hateful lies requires seeking not only factual information, but responsible debate as well, as there is a lot of room for disagreement even after we agree to keep the factual debate.

For those who still read newspapers, I would say they already have an advantage, because the paper they read is not protected by section 230. The owner of this newspaper is, and proudly claims to be, a publisher , subject to the principles of law which govern defamation and dictate the search for the truth.

Newspapers make mistakes, and not infrequently, but they correct those mistakes regularly and straightforwardly.

But beyond their columns, newspaper editors offer yet another valuable service to their readers. They oversee the debate. This is why when you read letters to the editor in the newspapers they are more often than not quite rational and civilized in tone, at least compared to the rants you will find on the internet. Newspaper editors can and do reject comments all the time if they are so outrageous or devoid of fact that they go against common sense.

There is no easy way to overcome the misinformation and misinformation that has become a central feature of the internet, but choosing carefully which news sources we listen to and remembering where the delete button is are good points. starting point.

John Edwards is editor emeritus of the Smithfield Times. His email address is [email protected]

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