Bill Nye, “the science guy,” was arrested for manufacturing and selling illegal drugs.
That was the headline beaming a few years ago from www.huzlers.com. My son, around 10 at the time, told me he heard about this in school. He was a bit surprised. So was I, so I looked it up. Sure enough, a story popped up and for a moment I was in shock. Then I searched again, to see what else had been written on this, wondering why I hadn’t heard about it before.
It turned out the story was a joke. This site is similar to The Onion, no different than Mad magazine or a Saturday Night Live parody. Or, was it worse?
For a moment, not being familiar with the site, I too thought it was a real story. Others, with lousy research skills or greater gullibility, would assume it’s true, check no further, and then share the information as gospel.
Of late, fake news has come under scrutiny, only the discussion doesn’t seem to be about stories like this one. It’s about people who intentionally seek to publicly fool others by posting stories that aren’t true. They don’t do it as a humor site or a joke. They really want to sabotage American policy. There’s been an uproar about fake news and how it may have impacted the election results.
Along with that there is greater scrutiny over what speech and language should be permitted on social media. The whole thing is turning into a shit show.
There are huge questions being raised here, including:
• Who determines what is acceptable speech?
• What filters or parameters should be used to make a judgment?
• How are decisions appealed, if at all?
• Do the American people trust -- and understand -- how traditional or social media really work?
The media does suffer when someone intentionally and knowingly publishes a lie. When it’s not clearly labeled as satire, comedy, or parody, it injures all of us. When a media outlet knowingly publishes fake stuff that should be a crime. If the intent is to fool -- not entertain – let's lock ‘em up and shut them down.
The next issue is shoddy journalism. Are they properly, researching and reporting on things? Do they check the facts, use reliable sources, leave the bias out, and just give us the relevant news?
It’s getting harder to separate a story from a column, or commentary and analysis from fact and news. Blurring opinions with news harms everyone.
Next issue: Who enforces some kind of law or standard here? What resources would it take to protect the media and also prosecute it when necessary?
Social media platforms have a lot of influence today but the owners of such media are unchecked in their power. Our free speech is edited and filtered by Facebook and Twitter. Two people control everything.
FB CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently posted: “We must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”
Sure, we’d like clean, honest, polite discourse online, just as we would off-line, but the world is messy and filled with factions. Social media is an outgrowth of the real world. We can’t park our racism, politics, fears, desires, needs, experiences, fantasies, or views next to our devices. No, social media actually invites us to express ourselves on everything, perhaps too often on minutia and nonsense.
For free speech to survive, we need a few things:
• Fact-checkers and people to counter, with speech, against inaccurate speech, lying speech, or hateful speech.
• If sites like Twitter plan to censor content or limit what can be posted, it must be clear, specific, consistent, and transparent. I believe it should only focus on labeling things – making clear a story is a spoof or that something was discovered to be a complete fabrication.
• The public needs to be educated on the media – of what’s real or not. They need to be better educated to research things and read between the lines.
• We need more tolerance, both on the part of posters and readers.
• Posters need to move away from hateful, harmful, excluding-type rhetoric and readers need to be more tolerant of those who curse, challenge your views, say outrageous things, or make assertions that boggle the mind.
• Free speech is best answered by more free speech. Those who speak out against the haters, the ignorant, and the rude will help keep things in check.
But we must get a handle on who controls the mediums by which communication takes place. Right now the biggest threat to free speech comes from Google and their search selection, from Facebook and its selection of trending topics, and Twitter, for its selective choices of what to ban, censor or challenge regarding accounts and postings. President-elect Trump also poses a threat, based on his diatribes against the media and his threats of litigation against the media.
Cyber bullying is a whole other issue that social media needs to address, but again, free speech needs to win out. That isn’t to say legal action doesn’t play a role here. There’s no free speech for libel, defamation, or speech that specifically calls for and causes violence. But we can’t just have a Wild West approach to how a civilized society communicates and shares views, ideas, and information.
Words can lead to actions, even death and destruction. It feels like we’re on a collision course here, between free speech and those who want to silence others. It’s escalating. Soon, words will morph into weapons and we’ll have a debate about a new kind of terrorist, one that seeks to hurt the media and open debates.
We may be a click away from the dawn of a new kind of free speech. But it doesn’t look like a beautiful sunrise.