Both Democrats and Republicans are missing the mark when they call for the government to control the flow of information on the internet by regulating social media like a public utility.
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President Trump promised that today he’ll announce the recipients of his “Fake News Awards,” an honor he’s sure to bestow upon unflattering coverage that displeases him, a category that will almost certainly include the book Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s insider tell-all of life in the Trump White House.
But with “fake news” back in the real news, it’s worth reflecting upon how both Republicans and Democrats have utilized the amorphous term to lay the groundwork for the regulation of speech on the internet and why that’s a very bad idea.
Shortly after her defeat, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton held a press conference decrying the prevalence of fake news on social media, calling it “a danger that must be addressed.”
In October of last year, Democrats in both chambers of Congress took up her call, grilling the attorneys for the tech giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and the role of so-called “fake news” in sowing discord and confusion among the electorate.
“You have been identified as major purveyors of fake news,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) told lawyers at one hearing.
Some Democrats were explicit in their threats to regulate the companies if they didn’t do a better job weeding out trolls, bots, and fake news.
“You have to be the ones to do something about it,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), “Or we will.”
While Democrats seem concerned that tech companies don’t do enough to police content on their platforms, Republicans and conservatives have expressed concern that they do too much to cultivate their users’ newsfeeds.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) questioned the social media giants over whether or not they consider themselves “neutral public fora” and cited a study that claimed to have found political bias in Google search results. Former White House adviser Steve Bannon has called for Facebook and Google to be regulated like public utilities, and conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson made a similar case on his show after Google fired software engineer James Damore for writing an internal memo questioning some of the company’s diversity policies.
But both Democrats and Republicans are missing the mark when they call for the government to regulate the flow of information on the internet.
Treating social media as some sort of public utility is quite simply a power grab that all but guarantees that politicians and unelected bureaucrats will decide what information should appear in Americans’ newsfeeds and would likely grant the government even greater access to our private communications than it already has.
This is not the first time governments have tried to control new tools of mass communication.
Much like the internet, the advent of the printing press provoked panic and backlash among the elite institutions it disrupted.
America’s first multi-page newspaper was shut down after a single edition because it spread rumors about the sex lives of government officials and published what the colonial government described as “uncertain reports,” or what we might today call “fake news.”
For the crime of publishing without a license, the government imprisoned and later ran out of town another early colonial newspaper’s editor: James Franklin, older brother to Benjamin Franklin who went on to run that paper and do a few other notable things.
A few decades earlier, John Milton criticized the British government’s regulation of materials produced by the printing press, writing in 1644 that, “Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopoliz’d and traded in by tickets and statute.” Instead, wrote Milton, better to “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple.”
Granting government even the slightest control over the free flow of information on the internet under the guise of fighting falsehoods will, ironically, make more difficult the task of discovering truth.
Some level of fake news, misinformation, and trolling might just be the price we have to pay for free and open discussion.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller.
Additional graphics by Brett Raney and Meredith Bragg.
Music by Kai Engel. (http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kai_Engel/)
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