Though we all have a right to express our opinions, we don’t have a right to our own facts.
Politicians have been blasting websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google for not doing more to prevent Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. You may have noticed that the “traditional” media — newspapers, radio, and television — have not been criticized by these same politicians.
Why is this?
Sen. Al Franken fumed during one of these Russian influence hearings, according to the Associated Press on Nov. 1, “People are buying ads on your platform with rubles. They are political ads!”
So what? Traditional media have checks and balances. They have editors. It used to be that editors and reporters in traditional media whose job it was to do so ensured opinions were based on facts and that their facts were correct. Of course, this system was and today, still is, imperfect. No human endeavor is perfect.
Still, it’s better than the alternative. In 2017 everyone with opinions, fact-based or not, can publish their opinions on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, or any number of other social media websites. And anyone with the money can advertise on these sites. Shouldn’t they be allowed to do so? That’s freedom of speech and capitalism. Two of the primary qualities that make us Americans.
Just as we all have body parts where the sun don’t shine, we all have opinions. And some of those opinions are worth more than others. Though we all have a right to express our opinions, we don’t have a right to our own facts. Facts are facts. And our opinions are often wrong, based on emotion, what we want others to believe, or what we believe is right rather than what factually is right. Those opinions aren’t worth too much even though we have — and should have — the right to express them.
Shouldn’t our right to freedom of speech also include the freedom to be fast and loose with the truth? Sure we can be sued for libel but our Bill of Rights ensures we’re free from the threat of the government locking us up for being fast and loose with the truth. That’s a good thing.
The real issue isn’t that social media is all that bad at controlling their content as Congress is claiming. The real issue is that too many Americans believe what they read.
Congress is blasting social media, the “new media” because too many Americans are, one, getting their news from new media (with few, if any, editors checking facts), two, too few Americans are getting their news from more than one website, and three, most importantly, too many Americans believe what they read.
According to an article on the Voice of America website by Doug Bernard, “A new study suggests a majority of U.S. citizens now get their news from social media websites. The Pew Research Center surveyed 4,654 people and found 62 percent got their news from social media websites like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit even though the study showed that people who use social media for news still use traditional media like television and newspapers.
"The study showed Facebook to be the most popular social media website for news, 44 percent of all U.S. adults getting their news from Facebook. The study suggests Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube also had high numbers of registered users getting news from these websites.
"But the number of people using more than one website to get news was low. Just 26 percent said they use two sites to get news and only 10 percent said they use three or more. A total of 64 percent of people surveyed said they only use one website to get news. Most commonly that site was Facebook.”
I suppose we have to investigate the Russians for mucking with social media, even though in the battle of ideas and in our cloak and dagger warfare, we’re the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. We’re probably doing the same thing to them on social media they’re doing to us. We’re just better at hiding it.
But even more central to the investigation on Russian meddling than tit for tat, I would hope we still understand that we can’t believe everything we read. When did parents stop teaching their children to be critically circumspect, to not believe everything they read?
OK fine. Investigate the Ruskies if we have to. But if we find the presidential election was, in fact, really swayed by them, we also need to investigate how we Americans could be so slow-witted to believe everything we read. We need to figure out why we’re so enamored by opinions over facts, and we need to fix the reasons we stupidly get our news from only one source.
Rubles-scruples. Bottom line: we need more traditional media and less social media.
Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.