There may be no value more central to American identity than free speech. It was so important to the founding fathers that it was enshrined in the very first amendment of the Constitution, the first …
There may be no value more central to American identity than free speech. It was so important to the founding fathers that it was enshrined in the very first amendment of the Constitution, the first part of the 10 amendments that make up what we now call the Bill of Rights.
Americans have long struggled with that right and argued over its application. While nearly everyone would quickly claim to support the First Amendment, not all would agree on the limits, if any. Recent years have seen a march of relatively unfettered freedom of speech, protecting, even controversially, those who would burn flags (Johnson v. Texas), demonstrate at U.S. military funerals (Westboro Baptist Church) and the excessive expenditures of corporations on political advertisements (Citizens United).
Today, we face remarkable new challenges to the exercise of free speech, particularly in these times of social media in which the ability to “publish” one’s ideas has never been greater. Everyone is now their own publisher, one ‘viral’ moment away from a reach that can range from thousands to millions.
Central to the debate today is the right one has to distribute that which is demonstrably false – from unintentional misstatements to outright lies. Also, what responsibility do social networks and other online publications have over the content they distribute?
This was the central issue of the case last week in which Twitter blocked the distribution of a New York Post story critical of former Vice President and current Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. That story was deemed by many, including, apparently some staffers of the New York Post, to be based on, at best, information deemed to be unverifiable.
Social media has gone unregulated primarily because it has not acted as a publisher. Publishers that employ editors to make choices on what is published bear responsibility for every word they distribute and are prone to charges of libel if they don’t do their best to weigh every word in every piece of publication. For social media companies, who do little to control what they publish, there is no similar legal liability. This may be the primary reason companies like Facebook and Twitter are not rushing to do more to combat the massive tides of misinformation their platforms deliver.
Deciding what is fit for publication is not an objective process. Newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, both with more than a century of journalism practice and tradition to call on, can struggle with these decisions. The software engineers and venture capitalists who have built Google, Facebook and Twitter are definitely not used to making these sorts of decisions.
So what to do? While many agree that our current system is prone to floods of misinformation, from both domestic and foreign concerns, there is no consensus on how we can square that flood with our nation’s free speech standards, which remain the most liberal in the world. The election on Nov. 3, regardless of outcome, will do nothing to settle this issue.
Sifting the fake news from the real deal is hard now. It can get a lot worse.