Fake news, Facebook and taking responsibility

Published 6:25 pm Thursday, January 30, 2020

Professional journalism is struggling, giving way to fake news. This is bad for the country.

One bad clause in the Communications Act of 1996 is the cause. In Section 230, the U. S. Congress exempted Google, Facebook and other Internet platforms from our libel laws.

Never in the thousand-year history of our culture and its common laws, have publishers been given immunity from libel. The result of this misguided legislation has been a news disaster in the United States.

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Facebook can sell $60 billion in advertising around content over which it has zero legal responsibility. Google makes even more money, yet has no legal responsibility if libelous information appears on its search results.

Compare this to a newspaper, magazine, book, radio or television station. If the Northside Sun publishes a libelous letter to the editor, we can get sued, even though we didn’t write the letter. Same with all traditional media.

Meanwhile, anybody can post anything to Facebook, no matter how libelous, and Facebook has immunity.

Just last year, a group of terrorist victims sued Facebook for allowing terrorists to use its platform for communicating and planning terrorist attacks. In a 66-page ruling the Second Circuit U. S. Court of Appeals ruled that, based on Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1996, Facebook didn’t create the content, therefore it was not responsible.

This is how the Russians can use Facebook to manipulate our elections by posting mountains of fake news. Facebook can let it happen because it can’t be sued.

Ironically, the more Facebook tries to edit, control or create content, the more likely it hurts its libel exemption. That’s why Facebook has no reporters, no journalists and tries to stay as far away from the content has possible.

It’s a case of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil all the way to the bank.

It’s a brilliant business model for Facebook, Twitter, etc. They pay nothing for content. Allow anybody to say anything. Sell billions of ads around this chaos and fakery. Then zero exposure no matter how fake the content.

Section 230 says “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.”

Without this exemption, which exists in no other country, Facebook and Google would be legally responsible for the content on their platforms. Fake news would not exist and the internet would be a much more responsible, legitimate space. Real journalism written by real journalists would still be thriving.

Here’s a example: John Seigenthaler, one of the nation’s most respected editors, was the victim of libel by an anonymous blogger. The blogger accused Seigenthaler of being a suspect in the assassination of President Kennedy.

The fake news went viral. It showed up on Google search results and even Wikipedia.

Here is a respected editor who had lived an exemplary life of integrity. Yet if you Googled his name, the first result was about his involvement in the Kennedy assassination.

In a normal world, with normal libel laws, Seigenthaler could have sued Google, Facebook and Wikipedia for allowing such false information on their websites. But not so today in the United States. Seigenthaler’s reputation was demolished. Yet the platforms profiting from the libel were able to avoid punishment because of Section 230.

Seigenthaler was an influential man and he was able to publicize his fight and get some corrective action before he passed away. But there are millions and millions of less powerful people who have been libeled and defamed on the Internet and they have no course of action.

One of my best friends was libeled by a local blog. Most of the facts were wrong. Some were completely out of context. The anonymous posters piled on. My friend had to change careers. The damaging comments still appear when you Google his name.

Now you may say that Facebook isn’t making the posts. True enough. But they are making billions selling advertising around these posts yet claiming zero responsibility. The faker the news, the more viral. The more viral, the more eyeballs and the more advertising dollars for Facebook, etc. This vicious cycle creates a cauldron of falsity and irresponsibility that is eroding the fabric of our country.

Democratic Presidential frontrunner Joe Biden met with the editorial board of the New York Times last week. “Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms,” Biden told the editorial board.

President Trump has done a terrible disservice to traditional, reputable news establishments by equating what they do with the new internet phenomenon of fake news.

No doubt, professional journalists have bias. Every writer does. There is bias in what you choose to write about. There is bias in the facts you pick. There is bias in the words you choose. Editorials and opinion columns are designed to be biased.

But bias is not the same as outright fakery. There is a world of difference. I may dislike Section 230, but I am most definitely not making this up. What I am writing about is real.

The fact that the American public has trouble distinguishing fake news with legitimate, if biased, reporting is profoundly disturbing. The Russians saw how destabilizing this could be to our country and jumped right on it.

Meanwhile, Congress does nothing to correct this horrendous mistake, leaving the tech billionaires to wash their hands of the danger this presents to our culture and our country.

Wyatt Emmerich is a columnist, writer and publisher in Jackson. He can be reached at wyatt@northsidesun.com.