I’ve been thinking about when I first heard the term “fake news,” and it wasn’t until sometime in 2016, when the Presidential election contest was in full bloom. I think back to that campaign and Donald Trump, who used that phrase frequently to identify those and their organizations that asked tough questions of him. So many times Trump would get a question or be asked to comment on things like Russia meddling, hush money to porn stars, and p***y grabbing. He would retreat to my personal visual of him in the fetal position shouting “you are a very bad person” and calling them “fake news.” The questions were always real and about facts in the public domain. How about your tax returns, Mr. President? He would argue “no one cares but you,” referring to the press, and label the questions “unfair” and then call it fake news. It was quite effective. Russia noticed. His supporters noticed. So did we and the rest of America. We would learn later, after the FBI, Mueller, and countless other investigations, the peddling of fake news, and then misinformation campaigns or outright lies, would cut deep into the souls of America.
Didn’t you think that arguing fake news was just a defense mechanism used by Trump to deflect from bad press? I did. I figured that he just liked the tool of misdirection to thwart those who opposed him. I had no idea that pushing fake news was not only a pervasive political strategy, but an outright war on our long-standing democratic institutions. It was war on the truth. On facts. He weaponized fake news and then a foreign power took it to a new level through our most frequented media outlets, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others.
There are hundreds of articles out there on the various bad actors who developed memes, and trolls to spread miss information to the American voter. For example, Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian cyber-warfare group, became a prolific actor in a world of bad actors. We would find out the chilling details of the deep and painful reach of the IRA through Robert Mueller’s report issued in 2019 documenting the Russian conspiracy to help elect Donald Trump. According to Wired, Facebook and Twitter members were targeted through “IRA trolls aimed to pit Americans against each other with divisive memes.” Millennials received special attention and were targeted through similar tactic on Instagram. The idea was to spread division and create a culture of disenfranchisement. The more people hated Clinton, the better the chance Democratic and Independent voters might stay home. The IRA attracted over 3 million followers to their pages and issued hateful, divisive content some 70 million times. Targeting, because of the way social media collected your data, was laser focused. If you were black, advocated for the 2nd Amendment, or leaned toward the far right or left, your feeds would receive memes and content poured in to get you stirred up to hate. Content warfare was designed to stoke distrust in democratic institutions and suppress turnout for candidate Hillary Clinton. It worked. America bought it. Hundreds of thousands of voters threw their hands up and didn’t vote. Some 75,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania tipped the electoral balance and gave America Trump.
What I want you to think about is how social media giants like Facebook and Twitter got played, and worse yet, participated in this destruction of truth and fact. And, please, my point here is not to cast dispersion on our 1st Amendment rights. We have the right to free speech. But, do you think it makes sense that somehow the New York Times, Washington Post, or Miami Herald should be held to one ethical standard, while Facebook, Twitter, and others alike, are not held to any standard. Should our free social media platforms allow anything to be said or asserted, especially from sources or people with enormous responsibility? Like a Presidential candidate. Or a foreign power. Herein lies the dilemma. Our papers and broadcast companies regulate to ensure facts, truth, and trustworthy content, even with opinion editorials. But social media, not at all. Why is this? We’ve heard deflection around content not being owned by the platforms, so CEO’s have said its not “our responsibility” to fact check or regulate. In the quest for having the most subscribers, social media leadership has summarily turned a cold cheek to quality and trust, and to what’s right and wrong in our modern technology tools.
This roller coaster ride through “what is true and what is false” hasn’t stopped since 2016. Trust in our norms and love for one another has disintegrated right before our eyes. President Trump operationalized lying with his voice at the mic and through Twitter. This took off as a candidate and continued throughout his Presidency. As bad as that may seem, what is worse is the lack of accountability to the American people. Social media has also continued to be a breading ground for bad actors, using incendiary posts & memes designed to get you to be a hater, one way or the other. It has worked.
Just this year alone, we’ve had a number of falsehoods promoted by Trump using Twitter as his playground. Remember that Trump claimed “mail-in” voting was fraudulent. Untrue. Remember Trump called an elderly protester who got bullied by police an “ANTIFA” agent. Untrue. These lies reached millions of people.
Do social media companies deserve some of the blame? You bet they do. It’s hard to prevent bad actors, like Trump, from doing harmful things with his voice. It’s called free will. But, free will doesn’t mean our social media platforms should allow such harmful rhetoric and lies to be the truths we accept. It’s sort of like shouting “fire” in a movie theater when there is no fire. Our 1st amendment rights don’t give us permission to incite a panic. It’s illegal. That’s right, illegal. However, I can go to my Facebook or Twitter feed right now, and write or image just about anything I want and press “send.” Social media users, real and fake, can create havoc anytime. And they do. According to Forbes, “when platforms like Facebook are not held responsible for the accuracy of the content they present, there is no incentive for them not to show you the most outrageous or fake.” As populism and fringe movements have risen in America, social media platforms have allowed full license to the crazy and unhinged. Deft haters promote conspiracies and inappropriately influence voters. Remember the press coverage around conspiracies that Covid-19 was a hoax created by Democrats to hurt Trump in the 2020 election? That happened just three months ago and was all over social media and Fox News. Ridiculous. Just an absolute assault on truth, fairness, and of course, science. But those stories ran as did their memes through our social networks.
So, what’s the answer? Social media company executives have been mostly silent or deflective. While being sensitive to the fact that Russian bots got the better of them in the 2016 election process, they’ve been resistant to forming real accountable plans to regulate themselves. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, has been to Congress, deflected, and argued it isn’t his responsibility, while apologizing for Russia’s “purchased interference” in the 2016 election. Some 3,500 Facebook ads were bought by Russia’s IRA. We also know that further polorization in our communities has helped unravel our trust in real democratic institutions. Everyone wants free speech. I do. But at what cost? Shouldn’t the social cost relative to social media platforms have some mitigation applied to defend the worst effects? Consider the answer should be yes. Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, recently gave the green light for Twitter to “fact check” Trump, with false statements being identified in the feed and directed to the reliable information sources. Trump threatened to sue social media companies, of course, in retaliation. Surprising I know. Zuckerberg, meanwhile, indicated that Facebook shouldn’t be “an arbiter of truth,” creating some new friction between he and Dorsey. According to Trump, “Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices.” I submit that is entirely unfair and untrue. Trump just wants it his way because he has never been held to account. It may also be that Republicans have a hard time with the truth because they need to defend Trump, so they slip into passive resistance, which further enables the bad behavior. Trump says, “We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.” He knows full well he cant shut down social media or or any other news source. This isn’t Russia, Donald. Of course, this is a form of crybaby tactic he employs when he cant get his way.
As a final set of thoughts, consider the possibility of bringing back some form of a modern Fairness Doctrine. This doctrine was an FCC policy implemented in the late 1940’s to provide quality control and ethical fairness to controversial topics of the day. It was repealed during the Reagan years and argued by Republican proponents to be obstructive to the 1st Amendment. Most of those arguments were levied as cable/satellite news was developing creative content that pushed new limits.
In 1987, Reagan and the FCC formally repealed the fairness doctrine but maintained both the editorial and personal-attack provisions, which remained in effect until 2000, and were not renewed during the Bush or Obama Administrations. Fast-forward, and the consequences of monopolistic social media dictates that we must consider some form of regulation. Whether we make use of a fairness doctrine or some other quality check, the impact of doing nothing, or kicking the can down the road, erodes our democracy. Just consider how America’s lack of trust in our institutions unraveled over just three and half years. We need our social media companies for all of the benefits we derive from them, but those benefits come at a considerable cost. Is that cost affordable any longer? Let’s agree, the answer is No.