KEVIN LEININGER: Trump only mocks news he doesn’t like; the Internet can make it disappear

AP photo
Alex Jones
Kevin Leininger

If the experts are right, and they always are — just ask them! — more and more Americans are relying on “social media” as their primary news source. It’s an alarming trend, and not just because newspapers and even television are struggling to keep up with fast-changing tastes, technologies and the revenues that go with them.

As the traditional media and President Trump spar over what does and does not constitute “fake news,” a debate of equal or even greater importance is quietly underway about how, or whether, Facebook and other social media should censor content. When even the Declaration of Independence has been removed from Facebook as “hate speech” because of its admittedly anachronistic phrase about “merciless Indian savages,” it’s clearly time to pay attention.

Actually, “censorship” isn’t quite the right word to describe what’s going on. As private companies, Facebook, Twitter and the rest have every right to add or delete most any content they choose. But consumers also deserve to know how and why those decisions are made. The Washington Post reports that simply isn’t the case, with Facebook using a previously unknown system to assign “reputation scores” to its users in order to crack down on wilful purveyors of misinformation.

Which brings us to Alex Jones, whose Infowars web sites contains conservative-friendly legitimate news but sometimes veers off into bizarre conspiracy theories. Did you know an Austrian secret society was involved in the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, that the Obama administration wanted to use of secret weapons to control the weather or that the federal government was involved in the 9/11 attacks “as a pretext to bring you and your family martial law”?

Jones, an outspoken Trump ally, has now been banned from many sites in the name of combating hate speech. And although the move has been cheered by some — Amy Russo of USA Today argued that if Jones is banned, Trump’s Twitter account should go, too — others have displayed a more traditional and expansive appreciation for free speech.

American ACLU Director Ben Wizner cautioned that the process that led to a ban against Jones could easily be misused. “If (Attorney General) Jeff Sessions were deciding what’s hate speech, he would be less likely to think KKK and more likely to think (Black Lives Matter),” he said. HBO talk-show host Bill Maher made a similar point after Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm cheered Jones’ banishment. Free speech also applies to “the speech you hate. That’s what free speech means. We’re losing the thread of concepts that are important to this country,” Maher said.

Precisely. An unnamed Facebook employee has reportedly said that the site “routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers while artificially adding other stories to its “trending” list. Facebook denied the claim but later apologized to conservative non-profit group PragerU for “mistakenly” removing content, including a report on the value of masculinity it deemed hateful. But it’s not just conservatives who are alarmed. Some progressive sites have said their traffic decreased sharply after Google implemented a new algorithm intended to weed out fake news. And therein lurks part of the problem: When computer programs decide what is and is not inappropriate, nuances are lost.

Two years ago, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg posted the iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 photo of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming from a napalm attack. Facebook deleted the post, drawing a rebuke from newspaper editor Egil Hansen, who said the social network should have been able to tell the difference between child pornography and history. “I am upset, disappointed — well, in fact even afraid — of what (Facebook) is about to do to a mainstay of our democratic society,” Hansen wrote.

The alarm is justified. From campus speech codes intended to prevent so-called “microagressions” to a proposed ban on fake news in France and fines in Germany for social media companies that don’t delete hate speech fast enough, free speech is fast becoming en endangered species. In some countries, even quoting the Bible can be considered hate speech.

I don’t agree with Maher and the ACLU on much, but this time they’re exactly right: Rules that can be used to quash one variety of speech can just as easily be turned against another. When “hate” can arbitrarily be defined as any opinion with which you disagree, no one’s speech can be truly free for long — and no society can truly be well informed.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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