The Russian government clearly sought to influence the United States’ 2016 election. This should not incite a rush to censor dissonant opinions on websites and social media, but that could easily happen in the good intentions to safeguard democracy from truly false and subversive content.
Like the printing press, broadcast radio and television and cable television, the internet and social media revolutionized communications by making mass distribution of news and analysis more broadly accessible. That has widened public dialog on everything from parking regulations to who should be president – it’s too good to lose even if it’s sometimes as annoying and discomforting as persistent demonstrations on the Washington Mall.
Consider how stodgy and limited dialog was in the days of Messrs. Kennedy and Nixon. Viewers were limited to three major networks, which applied the fairness doctrine to afford equal time to the two major political parties. Mostly absent from the materials citizens could see or read in mainstream newspapers were fringe voices – folks like some present day environmentalists and conservative bloggers.
Cable fractionalized television – and opened access to previously marginalized voices. The internet and websites made distributing entertainment and perspectives downright cheap and Facebook and Twitter make it virtually free.
Everyone who can record a video or write has an outlet – the informed, uninformed and unfortunately, malefactors who would undermine public confidence in democratic institutions and make America a less vibrant beacon of freedom to the world.
Kremlin surrogates like the St. Petersburg-based internet Research Agency created remarkably authentic looking fictitious Twitter accounts and posted false stories on websites, for example, on CNN’s iReport and Wikipedia about poisoned water in an Idaho reservoir and tainted Thanksgiving turkeys from Walmart.
They disseminated material during the primaries and general election generally favorable to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and intended to subvert the campaigns of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. They also spread false narratives to inflame black fears of racism and exploit other issues to seed divisions among Americans.
The Russians are hardly alone at subterfuge but they were particularly adroit at fooling people – for example, the false Twitter account @Pamela_Moore13 attracted 70,000 followers including Gen. Michael Flynn and Sean Hannity.
Social media is particularly powerful for fake news because these outlets are structured to capture our continued attention. Once we view a story critical of Hillary Clinton or explaining how to change a bicycle tire, their algorithms feed us lots of similar – and especially “sticky” – content on the subject to hold our interest and display ads that generate revenue.
Too often the content is fake or extreme, and pressure is mounting on social media to filter stories to eliminate patently misleading content.
But who will decide what is false or distorted?
If the liberal faculty at universities or their acolytes in the media were put in charge, anything critical about the link between CO2 emissions and global warming or questioning the effectiveness of the Paris Climate Accord would be nixed. Conservatives are routinely punished for questioning political correctness or expressing provocative views by deans, for example, at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Facebook wants to let readers vote on which news sources are authoritative – that is easier and cheaper than actually sorting content and verifying truly fictitious personalities and materials. But voting would let platforms with more liberal participants shut out conservatives. Given the bubble in the Silicon Valley, maybe that’s the ultimate objective.
Requiring social media organizations to work with federal authorities to ferret out Russian operatives and similar malefactors and cancel fictitious accounts is fine, but personalities should not be banned because they upset our biases. The likes of Martin Luther, Copernicus and others would have been voted out in their times and perhaps Martin Luther King when he first emerged.
Rob Goldman, Twitter’s head of advertising, was roundly criticized for stating that the easiest way to fight a Russian campaign is a “well educated citizenry,” but he is right. If the water is really tainted and the turkeys are causing food poisoning, it will show up quickly in wire service stories and readers can cross check assertions on Google.
But the hysterical left has captured our universities. Those are producing too many citizens who chant leftist slogans and do not think objectively – and that is more dangerous to our democracy than the Russians.
Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. © 2018, The Washington Times, LLC.