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Social media should be legally responsible for their content

The Newseum in Washington, which closed at the end of 2019, celebrated the First Amendment in numerous ways, including displays of quotes pertinent to free expression.

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

It should also not be a license to intentionally spread false information, and yet that seems to have become an American pastime, 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. That law was intended as a means of keeping indecent material off the then-emerging internet. Two legislators — one a Republican, one a Democrat — championed the addition of Section 230, which reads:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

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

The language inserted in the Decency Act was intended to allow internet platform operators to regulate what was posted on their sites without being considered publishers. The idea was that this would provide the flexibility they needed to control “bad” content.

It did precisely the reverse. Section 230 enabled Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to declare that since the law does not consider them “publishers,” they are not legally responsible for what is posted on their platforms. That can — and does — include wild political conspiracy theories that are read and repeated by millions of people eager to reinforce their own biased political beliefs.

The upshot of Section 230 is that the internet — which is history’s second greatest enabling tool of literacy, the first being the printing press — has also become the means by which great lies can be spread by eager liars and devoured by equally eager recipients.

The Big Lie concept isn’t new. It has been used throughout history to lull, inflame or misdirect the public. Up until the advent of the internet, disseminating the Big Lie was a challenge. Social media, hiding behind Section 230, eliminated that challenge. From white nationalists to left-wing radicals, the internet has been used effectively to appeal to persons who have similar passions and similar prejudices.

Working our way out of the maze of lies that drives politics will not be easy, but it is not impossible. We must teach ourselves and our children and grandchildren how to recognize fact from fiction, and the starting point should be the ability to discriminate between the two.

To get there, we have to look to the source, and Furious Flo’s Facebook page will most likely not qualify. Nor will Angry Al’s Twitters, or tweets or whatever 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 looking for not only factual information, but also responsible debate, because there is plenty of room for disagreement even after we agree to keep the debate factual.

For those who still read newspapers, I would posit that they already have an edge, for the paper they are reading is not protected by Section 230. The owner of that newspaper is, and proudly proclaims to be, a publisher, subject to the common law principles that govern libel and dictate the seeking of truth.

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

But beyond their news columns, newspaper publishers perform yet another valuable service to their readers. They supervise debate. That’s why when you read letters to the editor in newspapers, they more often than not are fairly rational and civilized in tone, at least when compared with the rants you will find on the internet. Newspaper publishers can and do reject commentary all the time if it is so outrageous or bereft of fact as to run counter to common sense.

There is no easy way to overcome the misinformation and disinformation that has become a central feature of the internet, but carefully choosing the sources of information we listen to, and remembering where the Delete button is located, are good places to start.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.