I cheered when I first learned Twitter called Donald Trump on misleading Tweets about mail-in voting. About time, I thought.
The man cannot open his mouth or move his fingers without lying, it seems, and people believe the untruths he scatters around like so much shot out of a shell. Say it over and over and over enough times and people will believe it — that seems to be Trump’s strategy for just about everything.
It’s worked well for him so far. Look at how many people he got to vote for him in 2016, people who now are willing to defend him with their lives, literally, by going out in the midst of a plague with no thought of protecting themselves or others from infection. No social distancing. No masks. Nothing but guns and flags, U.S. and Confederate.
So, yeah, I was glad to see Trump’s favorite social media platform rein him in a bit. Finally.
But then, by the next morning, I was thinking about 1984.
Two sides of the censorship coin
The hubbub, as you probably know already, came after Trump tweeted false information about the potential for fraud with mail-in ballots. Twitter invited users to “get the facts about mail-in ballots” and provided a link to factual information.
It was all over social and traditional media in short order, and people like me were applauding Twitter’s actions to protect truth.
Then, yesterday morning, I read this post on Medium by Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, an organization that is working to “…harness the power of the Internet to channel outrage into action, defending our most basic rights in the digital age.”
In a nutshell, Greer walks readers through a situation in which Facebook censored one of his posts, which linked to a VICE magazine article Greer wrote about law enforcement’s right to view digital users’ browsing history, and how and why the tech giants’ fact checkers got it wrong.
Independent fact checkers at USA Today determined that the headline of the VICE article shared on Facebook was misleading.
“Senate Votes to Allow FBI to Look at Your Web Browsing History Without a Warrant,” the VICE headline said.
“The article is referring to the Senate passing the USA Freedom Reauthorization Act, which reauthorizes several Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) surveillance authorities — while failing to pass an amendment offered by Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Daines (R-MT). The amendment would have required the FBI to get a warrant before snooping on Internet activity like web browsing and search history. The headline is provocative, but it is 100% true.”
The fact checkers didn’t grasp the nuance. They got it wrong. And now Greer’s Facebook post carries a banner that says, “Partly false information found by independent fact checkers,” and Facebook contacted anyone who had interacted with the post to inform them of its finding.
“Without due process or a meaningful way to appeal the decision, this ‘fact-checker’ became judge, jury, and executioner, killing the spread of an organically viral post about government surveillance…,” Greer wrote.
So the question is, if this is how things are going to be, who is going to check the fact checkers?
Fact, fiction or somewhere in between?
Research by Chloe Lim published in Research & Politics, “a peer-reviewed, open access journal on research in political science and related fields,” compared the determinations of two prominent fact-checking organizations, Fact Checker and Politifact. She found that whether something is true, false or somewhere in between really depends on who is doing the fact-checking.
She wrote, “Regarding claims evaluated by both organizations, the fact checkers performed fairly well on outright falsehoods or obvious truths,” she wrote, “however, the agreement rate was much lower for statements in the more ambiguous scoring range (that is, ‘Half True’ or ‘Mostly False’).”
If that’s the case, then when does fact-checking begin to encroach on censorship territory? Who is doing the evaluations? Who is making determinations based on those evaluations? And who is deciding to slap a label on a post or remove it altogether?
When Trump writes on Twitter, “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent,” is he expressing an opinion or presenting the statement as fact?
If it’s his opinion, then he has every right to it, not to mention the right to say it. If he’s presenting it as fact, then it’s fair to check it, not to mention label it as either true or false.
The problem is when something isn’t entirely true or entirely false. What then?
According to Snopes, Trump’s statement is “mostly false”; there is slightly higher potential for fraud compared to in-person voting. However, “All types of voter fraud in U.S. elections is minuscule in comparison to the number of ballots cast.”
Some other fact checking organization could label Trump’s statement as just “partially false” or “partially true.” Both would be correct.
So, again, it all depends on who is doing the labeling.
Keep them out of the true or false business
To be clear, I do not like the fact that Trump is able to spout off nonsense on Twitter with impunity. It’s important that he be called on his lies. I do it myself. Often.
In fact, I dislike misinformation and downright lies as much as the next person, and sadly my faith in people doing the right thing — digging down to the facts rather than taking statements at face value — has taken a serious beating lately.
Even so, I hate censorship more.
I do not want to be like Evan Greer, censored on false pretenses. Nor do I want to become Winston Smith from George Orwell’s “1984,” never able to express an opinion, bombarded constantly with “alternative facts” and revised histories, and finally forced to accept censors’ versions of truth. I absolutely do not trust Mark Zuckerberg or anyone at Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat or Instagram to make the right decisions about what is true and what isn’t, what I should see or what I shouldn’t, from my posts or the posts of others. And I absolutely do not want for-profit corporations like them to become “The Party” or, for that matter, the extension of any political party.
We as consumers of information need to take responsibility for finding facts, passing informed judgements and determining truth from falsehood.
So I say this as a journalist, opinion writer and citizen of what is supposed to be a nation that protects free speech: unless he is inciting or threatening violence, let Trump spew. Let other fools and ignoramuses bloviate, too. And let truth-tellers do the same.
Above all, let freedom ring!
Do we really want Twitter, Instagram and Facebook deciding what we can see or not see, read or not read, agree or disagree with?
Photo credit: Victor Forgacs via Unsplash
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