In this evening’s 60 Minutes interview, former president Barak Obama pushed back against the notion that politicians and social media are solely to blame for the bitterness displayed during the recent election cycle.
I think he’s being too nice.
Once a politician vomits up some dearly held conviction–let’s say he claims that the the three branches of government are the House, the Senate, and the executive, or that America fought WWII against socialism–it can be reported as news, and people on social media can treat that misguided notion like it’s the truth. This puts social media platforms between a rock and a hard place: they generally claim to support freedom of expression, but they also have recently discovered an aversion to being used to disseminate lies. Platforms can’t have it both ways. Either they don’t regulate the flow of information, with all the concomitant risks, or they try to impose veracity standards.
Unfortunately, since the advent of social media, people have jettisoned facts in favor of beliefs. People now care less about facts than about what they believe to be true–and they appropriate “facts” with the religious fervor of snake handling believers who claim to have found the one true path to God. (I have come face-to-face with a copperhead and found it something less than divine.)
I trust journalists far more than I trust politicians. Journalists have a code of ethics and can face lawsuits when they knowingly publish lies. Politicians can say what they want. “It was rigged.” “The other side cheated.” “I am the winner if you only count legal votes.” Sadly, journalists who report such statements as lies immediately (and unfairly) lose credibility with those who cannot distinguish fact from fiction. These misguided souls report their beliefs as facts on their social media accounts; social media algorithms steer more conspiracy theories their direction; the problem of distinguishing fact from belief grows exponentially worse.
I’m afraid we are past the point of encouraging journalists to save us from ourselves. Politicians have pushed reporters too far outside the circle of trust. So, my tech-savvy students, what kinds of rules should be in place to prevent people from using their social media accounts to spread lies that damage our ability to see each other as human?