A journalist friend and I had a “conversation” on Facebook the other day. We had a small disagreement on method, but we were both working toward the same point.
Our combined comments had to do with several “social” media sites removing extreme nutcase, Alex Jones, and his otherworldly conspiracy and hate epistles from their pages. Jones has been a national social cancer and an embarrassment for years. He’s had a marginal tinfoil hat following, but many similarly inclined conspiracy buffs avoid him as “too extreme.”
My friend who, in a previous life, was a very fine reporter and writer, posited removal of Jones was a good thing, while noting other poisonous voices out there could stand a fatal dose of anonymity as well. He cited the common practice of newspapers setting guidelines for reader’s letters and how some submissions were rejected. He wondered if similar guidelines could be set by Facebook, Twitter and others.
I demurred, saying that would get into First Amendment free speech territory and muzzling speech we don’t like could be open to challenge.
Though we disagreed on what could - and couldn’t - be done, I’m know my correspondent would agree on one point. Sooner or later - hopefully sooner - a briefcase full of challenges to shut down hate voices will land on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.
I’m a 1st Amendment believer and have practiced as such for many years. Even as the ACLU has defended some entirely terrible examples, I’ve often swallowed hard and agreed with the depth and width of such protection of “free” speech.
But, “social media” and the unfettered/unedited I-Net have taken us into new territory. Too much of what’s “published” is foul, baseless, ignorant, ridiculous, misleading, deceptive and lies. Most of us have no idea who’s creating and publishing much of it. There’s ample public evidence some comes from foreign countries, some from anonymous political operatives and more from people just hellbent on seeing their hate and racist words in a public medium.
As individuals, we can “deep six” a lot of this crap. My delete key gets an active workout. But, even companies behind the various sites can’t agree on what should be banned. In the case of Jones, Facebook dropped him but Twitter hasn’t. Facebook said he violated its rules; another said he didn’t abuse theirs.
The evidence is piled high that the I-net - for all its wonders and advantages - has made it easier for haters to spread their hate, racists to rant, lies to be passed off as truth and the unscrupulous to prey on innocent folk and innocent minds.
While these denizens of destruction have always been with us, they’ve never had such direct and easy access to the rest of us - access unedited, unverified, false and even dangerous. As the Facebook et al instances prove, there really are no accepted rules - no protections - no verification.
SCOTUS is going to have to decide. Neither Congress nor the Executive Branch can do anything - make any policies - enact any laws - than wouldn’t wind up before the high court. If we wait for either to act, a lot more avoidable damage will occur.
When a sociopath in a Boise basement can construct a web page that looks exactly like the editorial pages of today’s New York Times or any other major media, we’ve got a problem. When an Alex Jones can daily preach baseless conspiracies and call for the murder of people in public office, we need a speech “delete” mechanism.
Freedom of speech and assembly form much of the base of our national liberties. The terribly high price paid by millions of Americans for more that 240 years requires they be revered and preserved.
We have twin national sicknesses of division and tribalism at the moment. Some - including other nations - are trying to use them to their own advantage, diminish our freedoms and poison national discourse. In some ways, they’re succeeding. They’re actually using some of our freedoms recklessly and dangerously for amoral and illegal ends.
SCOTUS will have to act eventually. The outcome of that decision-making likely will change our nation forever.
We all need to remember that in November when we vote. The selection of who we want making that decision is ours.