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.
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.
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.
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