If you send me a letter to the editor and say one of our elected officials is a child-molesting, child-eating Satanist, and then I publish it, you won’t be the only one in serious legal jeopardy. I will be, too. Libel law makes it really clear what will happen to me if I publish such a libelous thing without proof.
But for years, if social media companies allow exactly the same thing, they are rewarded with more clicks, higher engagement and bigger profits. They are incentivized to allow conspiratorial road rage to dwarf sober thought. So they’ve set their algorithms to do exactly that. And conspiracy theories flourish, while long-form, exhaustive journalism rooted in rigorous fact-gathering is rendered increasingly unmarketable. Civic-minded journalism has suffered in this Internet economy where rage provocation pays big bucks. Social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have enjoyed an exemption from libel law, essentially because they are at a scale too large to effectively monitor content. But think about that. Apply that elsewhere. Would you legalize shoplifting because you don’t feel like you can effectively enforce the law in every store? That’s nonsensical.
Ironically, this libel exemption was established in something called the “Communications Decency Act” passed in 1996. Um, decency? Well, has it done its job and ushered in an age of communications “decency?” No, I think the past quarter of a century shows a steep decline in communications decency. How about you?
Section 230 states: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
And yet, as society drifts more and more into scary, untethered-to-reality territory, social media companies show some recognition now that they have some societal obligations. So, they are increasingly acting as publishers, determining what content can stay or go.
That means their libel exemption needs to be removed from the law. These companies need to sink or swim within the realm of all other publishers who determine what is allowable on their platforms and what’s not, which is what these companies are already doing. They are just not legally accountable in any way for their outsized role in society. They need to be. And that should be a bipartisan aim.
I write about Section 230, because I feel this is a root cause — but not the only cause — of the “age of information” sliding into a catastrophic “age of disinformation.” We are living in an information dystopia. And this needs to change. These 25 years of complete information free-for-all and device addiction have done a number on us individually and as a society. Many of us, including me, are tethered to screens for hours every day. And yet, we don’t seem quite capable of cognitively or emotionally handling this 24/7 blitzkrieg of input. Again, I say this about myself, too. Too much time “plugged in” risks making us all crazy. And a complete “head-in-the-sand” life is really bad, too. We all have to seek a balance.
Unfortunately, that “balance” has become a nation of people tunneling deeper and deeper into their own limited echo-chamber, where their every thought and belief is validated by profit-driven Internet algorithms that only show them a reality they want to see, not a reality as it is.
Last week’s siege of the Capitol was much more than a partisan battle. It seemed like a war over reality itself and who gets to shape it. It felt like a quintessential Internet-age event. The reality presented by the mob descending on the Capitol was rooted in passionate feelings, but not provable facts. It was born in hearts of an aggrieved people who saw crystal clarity in emotion in their chest, but have not offered argumentation that holds up in a court of law.
Prior to the chaos, Mitch McConnell warned fellow Senate Republicans of the “death spiral” of democracy if the presidential election was overturned without evidence, adding that the Senate can’t just declare itself a “national board of elections on steroids.” He said that the election process in America would be essentially over, with no one ever accepting any outcome again. He is right. That’s the logical conclusion.
But it’s not the emotionally satisfying answer for many. And within moments, thousands of people were banging open the doors of the Capitol. There were calls for Mike Pence to be hanged. A police officer was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. Offices were ransacked. An American flag was lowered and a Trump flag raised, a move conquerors make when they defeat another country. But this was our country. When feces is smeared on the walls of our nation’s Capitol and legislators flee as they are hunted with zip ties and a police officer is savagely attacked with the pole of an American flag itself, who are we? What we saw was criminal at many levels. And what I saw Trump say to rile up that crowd as he pledged to walk with them seemed like incitement to violence to me. He wasn’t asking that mob to go play patty cake with Congress. His attorney said it was time for “trial by combat.” This was about physical action. Let’s not lie to ourselves or to each other on this. We saw what we saw.
It’s also likely that we will see another attempt at this violent overthrow. There’s plenty of talk about what could happen before and during the inauguration. Our land is infected not just with a physical virus but an increasing passion for basing all action on conspiratorial thinking, not provable facts. That collective mental landscape inevitably leads to violence, not debate. Because debate is impossible when unfounded conspiracies are held as more important than provable facts.
Our information-age collapse has led us to seek clarity amid chaos. Who doesn’t want it simple? There’s just too much that’s in our face in terms of information these days. It’s maddening, isn’t it? And a conspiracy theory is satisfying because it takes all that is complex and narrows it into an easy-to-digest narrative of good and evil. It seeks to tell it straight, not factually, but emotionally. Pretty much all conspiracies scream this: “It’s ‘them!’ They are against us. So let’s defeat ‘them!’” We can all understand such language and such emotion. It’s hugely gratifying at times. But the bigger horror of this mindset is that “defeat them” can eventually turn to “kill them” when our systems collapse, our emotions run wild and others are reduced to less than human. Remember this: Absolutely no one is less than human. Not the wild mob either. They are human. But what they did was criminal. Trump, too. And they should be held responsible by the laws of this country. Anything less demeans the law itself — and the rest of this country.
I don’t know a good way out of all this. I wish I did. But I do know that truth matters. And truth is rooted in who, what, when, where, why and how. If truth matters, then you don’t get to cheat on those questions. You have to prove them and admit when you don’t have the answer, because you often won’t have a good answer if you are, in fact, truthful. Fabricating and bullying may get you your way some of the time. But those tactics don’t bring the truth. No, they bring the wreckage of its opposite. Whether that wreckage comes immediately or later, it will come.
Everyone will look at last week’s action through the filter of their own eyes. But when I saw people cleaning up after that mayhem, I thought about how the wreckage in the Capitol symbolized the profuse litter in our lives from this age of disinformation, when emotion defeats reason.
It’s high time we clean this act up, in the right ways, not the wrong ones, as a nation that aspires to be better and doesn’t drift toward worse and worse. Everyone has a personal responsibility in that in one way or another.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.