Perspectives: Fake news, do we really need protection from free speech?

Composite image, St. George News

OPINION – Free speech can be one of the riskiest things on earth. Its very existence means some people will be tempted to abuse or misuse it.

Perhaps this is why people are so easily persuaded to try to limit it in a misguided attempt to maintain control.

A glaring example of this is seen in the current calls to protect the public from what’s being called “fake news.”

But is this really one of the greatest threats we face?

The narrative, pushed by some members of the media, holds that false or misleading stories are destroying the integrity of our political system. For example, they claim that “fake news” was what ultimately tipped the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton.

Emails leaked to Wikileaks definitely didn’t show the Democratic National Committee or Clinton’s campaign staff in a favorable light. Still, the most damning information was found in their own words rather than what others were saying about them.

While a majority of mainstream news outlets were furiously doing what they could to tip the scales of public opinion in Clinton’s favor, publishing the inconvenient truths fell to more independent outlets.

Given the tenor of the election cycle from the time the nominees were announced, it’s highly doubtful many minds were changed by the revelations of corruption. Even so, there is a persistent effort to strip any sense of legitimacy from the final outcome of the election.

Russia, in particular, stands accused of swaying the election not only by the media but by the FBI, National Security Agency and CIA. This accusation presumes, of course, that most voters were either unfamiliar with Clinton’s political career or spent the last 30 years in a cave with their eyes shut and their hands over their ears.

With or without questionable news stories, it appears a sufficient number of people are losing faith in the traditional gatekeepers of information. This trend is not without merit considering how far some mainstream reporters will go to spin the facts.

Last week, for example, a story surfaced in Chicago about an 18-year-old mentally challenged white man who was tied up and tortured by four black assailants who were shouting racial and Trump-related epithets.

CBS Reporter Dean Reynolds described the racially motivated attack in these words:

In the video he is choked and repeatedly called the n-word. His clothes are slashed and he is terrorized with a knife. His alleged captors repeatedly reference Donald Trump. Police are holding four people in connection with the attack.

The words may be technically correct, but they are delivered in a deliberately misleading manner. How many people might incorrectly construe from those first three sentences that it was a black victim being attacked by Trump supporters?

It’s not that they’re stupid; it’s that they have been given incomplete information. A person who heard a 10-second sound bite with no further fact checking of their own could be excused of drawing an incorrect and racially polarizing conclusion.

The point here is that so-called fake news can be obtained from even “respectable” sources like CBS.

The predictable solutions to such abuse always seem to require ways to protect us from exposure to too much free speech.

They include installing “fact-checkers” to weed out those stories which deviate from what is considered acceptable opinion. Sadly, this is something social media giants – including Google, Facebook and Twitter – have announced an intention to pursue.

But the quest to protect us from disinformation is getting some official attention as well.

The U.S. government is getting in on the action with the creation of an authentic global ministry of truth as described in Section 1287 of the 2017 NDAA which goes into effect in June.

How should we address issues involving the exercise of free speech without overreacting to those who abuse this freedom? As with most things, we must first maintain perspective.

Historically, there have always been instances of misleading and deceptive information.

Deception was around long before the printing press, let alone the Information Age. Jarret Stepman argues that we would be wise to examine how our forebears dealt with scurrilous, hyperbolic or false stories in their time.

John Milton, in his essay “Areopagitica,” argued for freedom of the press and against preemptive censorship by observing:

Let her (Truth) and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.

People who regularly contend with broad and diverse opinions tend to hone their critical thinking skills and are less susceptible to manipulation. They willingly shoulder the responsibility to sharpen their own intellect rather than looking to someone else to shield them from falsehoods.

Centralizing the dissemination of “worthy” information is not the answer.

Free speech requires that each of us learn to sort fact from fiction.

Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and opinion columnist in Southern Utah. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: bryanh@stgnews.com

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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6 Comments

  • knobe January 9, 2017 at 8:28 am

    Given the number of foreign and domestic teens / young people making their fortunes generating fake news for clicks & cash ,
    What we NEED are advisories on what is documented activity and what is fiction created to generate cash flow from rubes so gullible they fall for Anything in print .
    We should each do our homework before playing the part of the ‘sucker / chump’ but an advisory would make that easier as our schedules are already on overload .

  • tcrider January 9, 2017 at 9:32 am

    Bryan do you mean like Sunday morning when skanky Kelly Ann Conway refused to answer a question, and then Chuck Todd
    cut out 10 minutes of her interview and then trumpilina goes on the attack of Chuck Todd, is this what you mean by fake news??

    • Henry January 9, 2017 at 6:21 pm

      Real classy, referring to a female political figure as “skanky”. Have you addressed your female Soldiers that way? How would you like it if someone referred to your wife as “skanky”?

  • comments January 9, 2017 at 10:18 am

    It’s been a long time now but does anyone remember that cute little fake news story “saddam hussein has ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and is a threat to the US”. Wasn’t that one a cute little piece of fake news, totally cheered on by the entire msm? Nowadays it’s nonstop lies and bs about russian hacking, syria’s “civil war”, migrant crises, ISIS terrorist attacks– it goes on and on. The msm is the biggest purveyor of fake news. Would be interesting if mass media had any independence, but they sold themselves out to corporatists and a gov’t that becomes more tyrannical every year. The difference between msm’s fake news and the fake news elsewhere is msm has the budget to make theirs look more realistic. In the end, yes there’s a lot of total bs out there like this “pizzagate” or whatever that we have to wade thru, but we can’t trust our corrupt gov’t or the greedy corporatist social networks to be gatekeeps of any kind of truth.

  • Proud Rebel January 9, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    “The narrative, pushed by some members of the media, holds that false or misleading stories are destroying the integrity of our political system”
    Uh no. Our political system destroyed it’s own integrity decades ago. But what these headline hungry, sensationalism seeking, say anything to get the public’s attention stories have done, (not are doing, they have been this way for many years,) has been to destroy their own integrity.
    News reporting is no longer available with mainstream media. They report a fraction of fact, then twist it to their own ends.
    We, the general public have allowed, even encouraged this to happen by paying attention to this garbage, and supporting the sponsors of it.
    But it is a part of “free speech.”
    Now, they want to actually control what other media can and cannot say? What in the world happened to America, The Land of The Free?

  • DB January 9, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    Exactly what part of Hillary’s emails was fake? Show your work, as my high school math teacher used to say. Making stuff up is one thing, a breach of privacy is another. Whoever was behind the whole thing (Russia, etc) failed, as Clinton still won the popular vote. While I’m not happy with the Electoral College concept, that’s what we go by and that’s what Trump’s people went after, the electoral vote, as opposed to wasting their time on CA and NY and such. I’m happy with the result at this point, not ecstatic, just happy.

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