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Facebook, Google, and Twitter: Arbiters of the Truth or Threats to Liberty?

Harold Furchtgott-Roth

Recent reports state that corporations such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter are considering how to curtail “fake news” through such steps as blocking advertising. The timing is curious.

It is one matter to distinguish between legitimate intellectual property and pirated material online, such as efforts described by the Digital Citizens Alliance. It is entirely different matter to distinguish between the “truth” and something less than the truth.

No publication or website is error-free; everyone makes mistakes. Reputable newspapers have sections entitled “Corrections” to correct prior mistakes. For example, “Jane Doe was born in 1933, not 1932 as previously reported.”

For the past 25 years, the Internet has been filled with false information. During that time, major corporations did not launch publicity campaigns to purge the Internet of “fake news.” Why now?

The recent “fake news” stories about Facebook, Google, and Twitter focus less on the inaccuracy of online information than on the possibility that online information, whether accurate or not, may have influenced the recent election. This all begs the question: had the election turned out differently, would there be a “fake news” campaign this week? Almost certainly not.

Did “fake news” change the outcome of the election? The answer is unknowable, much less in which direction “fake news” influenced voters. It is unclear that one position or candidate was endowed with more “fake news” than another.

Incorrect information is everywhere on the Internet, as are efforts to root it out. The challenge, of course, is that one person’s “fake news” is another person’s reality, and vice versa. The private sector already has many different ways of exposing false online information. For years, many organizations have attempted to identify false information. Various news organizations such as the Washington Post offer “Fact Checker” columns to identify and evaluate potential erroneous political information. PunditFact is a website that monitors and critically reviews conservative commentary such as Rush Limbaugh.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter now appear to be saying that they will take it upon themselves to punish “fake news” sites. These are private companies, and they are free to do as they see fit. Better that private companies curb speech than the government. Most Americans would be horrified if the federal government took upon itself the responsibility of monitoring political commentary and limiting access and advertising compensation to websites the government labeled “fake news.”

There is a much more elegant, technologically sophisticated method of undermining “fake news” without engaging in corporate censorship of information available to their customers. Third-party software is available to enable consumers to screen out objectionable images and words. If consumers, rather than a corporation, do not want to see sites that say that Martians have landed in New Jersey, or other forms of “fake news”, a consumer can block the story or the entire site. Advertising at those sites would not have the benefit of a visit from that consumer.

More importantly, individuals—rather than Facebook, Google, and Twitter–would be making decisions about the information they can access. Those who want to read about Martians in New Jersey—or any other topic—may. Those who do not, can avoid this discomfort.

Blocking information—even disturbing information–from reach consumers is deeply troubling. George Orwell wrote in the preface to Animal Farm: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Neither corporations nor the government should be engaged in categorically blocking that liberty, that ability of one set of speakers from reaching a potential audience.

No doubt, many individuals and companies are disturbed by “fake news.” But blocking information in the name of the “truth” is still blocking information. Is there really any company that can be an arbiter of the truth particularly in a digital age? Rather than limit liberty on the Internet, major online companies should expand that liberty by allowing consumers greater control over what they see and hear on the Internet. Consumers, rather than corporations, can better decide for themselves what is “fake” and what is not.

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