BY BOB BARR
In the not too distant past, most adults realized that not everything one saw on the internet or on social media was to be taken as true. Today, however, what used to be a sarcastic phrase – “I saw it on the internet so it must be true” – is taken quite literally, regardless of the online source for such information; especially if it confirms our existing opinions and beliefs.
This reflects a deep-seated cultural problem far beyond the ken of the Congress to solve; yet, of course, they try. And, as is par for the congressional course, they are pinning blame on an easy target: Facebook.
While Facebook certainly can be blamed for plenty of social ills, including the proliferation of “fake news” by its billions of users, as a private company it is frankly none of Congress’ business what it does with its platform. More to the point, expecting Facebook to lead the war against a societal problem for which “fake news” is but a symptom, is a waste of time and money, and sets a very bad precedent for legislative meddling.
Facebook can’t fix stupid, and “stupid” is the real problem.
At the most fundamental level, allowing Congress, or any third party, to sanitize and label what is and is not “real” information is a terrible reflection of the intellectual laziness that infects our society. Have we become so averse to engaging in threshold research, or asking basic questions necessary to determine if something actually makes sense or is logically sound, that we need Mark Zuckerberg or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to help us arrive at the “truth,” or more importantly, what they determine for us to be the truth? This appears to be precisely what Congress is demanding Facebook do.
Yes, misinformation is dangerous, and can be used to manipulate people for political purposes. This is hardly a new phenomenon. George Orwell wrote about it at length in his dystopian novel 1984, and our Founding Fathers understood it instinctively as reflected in how they constructed our constitutional government.
Members of Congress may yell loudly at Mark Zuckerberg for failing to rein in misinformation on the gigantic social media platform he created. But such charade is simply another instance of the pot calling the kettle black.
If Rep. Maxine Waters can make up lies about America’s border patrol, if Ocasio-Cortez can make up facts about “farting cows” causing global warming, and if Hillary Clinton can, without any shred of proof, accuse fellow Democrat and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard of being a “Russian agent” – and people then take them seriously – then clearly the problem of misinformation goes far beyond fake Facebook groups and a handful of Russian banner ads.
“Misinformation” is everywhere. It is not the problem. The problem is society’s expanding inability to use our brains to distinguish fact from fiction, and what is real from what is being fed to us for someone else’s benefit.
We have shortened Ronald Reagan’s sage advice to “trust, but verify,” into simply “trust.”
A recurrent theme in Ayn Rand’s opus, Atlas Shrugged, is a call to check one’s premises. In other words, if a contradiction exists, then the premises of the question at hand are likely wrong. It is an easy logical exercise for anyone to break down virtually any statement in order to verify its truth. But the process still requires a bare minimum of intellectual horsepower.
For example, if it seems like Rep. Gabbard serving in the U.S. military and then in Congress is an odd thing for a “Russian agent” to do, then perhaps Hillary Clinton was wrong in such accusation. In economics, if we understand that higher import costs are passed along to consumers, then we can deduce that trade wars are not going to make our economy strong again. The list of examples goes on; distressingly so.
Of course, the premise here is that Americans are willing to think, which as we see in today’s hyper-partisan environment, may itself be a premise to check. However, with the swiftly advancing technology making “deep fakes” available to virtually anyone, the problem of misinformation will only grow worse before it gets better; and no Silicon Valley CEO or federal mandate will save us. The only hope is that Americans recapture the capacity to once again stop believing everything they read on the internet.
I, for one, am not holding my breath for either our education system or better parenting skills to pull us out of this quagmire.
Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Bob Barr, represented Georgia’s 7th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 -2003 and as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986-1990. Mr. Barr currently serves a president of The Law Enforcement Education Foundation.