“No man has the right to mislead others, who have less access to history, and less leisure to study it. . . . Thus substituting falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument.” — Abraham Lincoln, “Cooper Union Address,” 1860
In November, Cambridge-educated and admittedly controversial actor Sacha Baron Cohen delivered an incredible speech when he was honored by the Anti-Defamation League. In his own way he paralleled Lincoln’s statement above.
Cohen railed against the unchecked power of massive social media networks to influence the world through their extensive reach. That power, he argued, should come with an equally massive level of responsibility and accountability. He could not be more right.
It should concern everyone how easily a social media lie repeated often enough gains factual equivalency. And once lies are cloaked as truth it becomes nearly impossible to tear them from the minds of people choosing to believe them. If we have no standards of truth we have lost the currency that ensures the future of our country.
Cohen also argues that maintaining standards of veracity on social media networks is not an infringement of free speech. The free speech argument used to defend people like Holocaust deniers or those peddling lies to promote division and hate is the refuge of the lazy. There are not “two-sides” to every story when you are discussing facts and truths. The Holocaust was real. School shootings are real.
He goes on to suggest that social media networks should be held to the same standards for publishers regarding defamatory or knowably false information. The defense that’s been used for years for forums and social media is a comparison to radio or television talk show callers. They can’t be responsible for monitoring all the things that are “said” on their platforms.
That argument rings hollow, because these companies are in fact the largest instant publishing companies on earth. What is posted on social media is published to a potential audience in the millions or even billions of people across the world. It is published with no standards of accuracy or factual basis.
This is more important now than ever as we turn toward an election in 2020 that is sure to be volatile, contested and bitter. Lincoln’s statements about intentional deception could easily describe our current environment.
Current arguments back and forth are nothing compared to what comes next. The flames will be fanned by those who will profit from the coffers filled by manufactured outrage. And the profit will not just be monetary.
Foreign governments have and will again use our greatest strengths against us. The free exchange of diversity and ideas in American society has made us unique and strong. At our core we accepted that we all loved our country. We believed that despite our differences all of us tried to do what each believed was best for the country. We trusted one another and we trusted our institutions: government, law enforcement, the courts, the media, banks, business and churches.
Now our starting point is distrust. Why?
Watergate, the Iraq War, the Pentagon Papers, the Afghanistan Papers, the financial crash of 2008, the opioid crisis and other scandals exposed the dark side of power. But it also created a climate of distrust clouding everything, giving room for even the most outrageous conspiracy theories to take root.
People outside the corridors of elite power see innocent people die in plane crashes, or from prescription drug overdoses, or others whose life savings or homes were lost in the last financial crisis. And while some hope for justice, powerful people and institutions just write checks to make it all go away. The death and destruction they sow are boiled down to a line on an accounting sheet or financial report as the cost of doing business. Ruined lives are just assigned a dollar amount and then paid out.
So now 2020 continues this era of burning mistrust, growing ever hotter on social media. People talk of “my truth” as though the truth is something fluid or malleable to be molded and shaped as we want. We can share “my truth” with other like-minded people assembling a seeming “majority” hashtag community.
And as we face off against one another creating our own set of “facts,” our outside adversaries fertilize the seeds of discord, distrust and division. Unchecked social media is humanity’s greatest manure spreader, fertilizing fields whose harvest of hatred poisons our republic into a coma of inaction.
Discord’s most resilient crops will be found in the fields where an issue’s roots are deepest — race, abortion, guns, religion, gender, sexual orientation and others. It will be the conflict points where leaders on both sides have made the only acceptable outcomes the most extreme all-or-nothing results insuring their hold on power.
In the end we need an era of accountability. As Lincoln argued for truth 160 years ago, we too must demand truth from our leaders, and the people through which that information is funneled. Anything less is a continuing threat to our nation’s future.