Efforts underway to rein in internet disinformation
The essential requirement of a democracy is that the citizens be allowed to protest for social change, as long as the protests are non-violent. The arrest and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny in Russia is a prime example of what a tyrannical regime is like. In America, many conservatives objected to the “Black Lives Matter” protests, even if they were non-violent but might result in any inconvenience to the general public. And conservatives were inflamed by false information broadcast pursuant to Section 230 protections.
The tune changed under the leadership of Donald Trump. Whites violently objecting to Trump’s allegedly stolen election suddenly became viewed by conservatives as the patriots and Blacks became the transgressors. Many Americans are astounded that so many people have been seduced by Trump, a perennial liar, to believe that the presidential election has been stolen. Some people believe the lie even though every state has certified the election results to be accurate and countless court cases have been unable to discover any impropriety.
Television interviews with those storming the Capitol indicated that they were driven to commit treacherous acts by the mistaken belief that they were preventing their country from being taken over by a hidden conspiracy. One has to wonder how so many adults could be induced to accept such bizarre conclusions.
Political opponents assert that much of the conservatives’ disinformation has resulted from propaganda on internet programming. Unfortunately for liberal critics, internet programming is protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The CDA was passed in 1996 to outlaw publication on the internet of sexually explicit material that would be available to minors.
Such rules are equivalent to a violation of the right of free speech granted by the First Amendment of the Constitution. So Section 230 was included in the law (47 U.S.C. §230) to relieve the owner of the internet service of any liability if there was such a breach. Section 230 states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
This rule freed media owners from any concern about the quality or truthfulness of the content they broadcast. By contrast, such issues are of overwhelming importance to publishers of print media. Is it any wonder, then, that the understanding of public issues has been deformed by those with a regular diet of the internet programs imbibed by Trump followers?
The solution is to disseminate truth!! That is easier said than accomplished. It is clearly necessary to modify Section 230 to require truth in electronic as well as print publishing. But that raises a fundamental constitutional problem. Whose truth shall it be?
Every state has the right to establish its own voting systems. Trump asserted that his vote was stolen by rigging electronic voting systems. Manufacturers of those systems brought defamation suits against lawyers and TV hosts who asserted this. Dominion Voting Systems sued Trump’s lawyers, Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell; the election technology company Smartmatic sued Fox Corporation, Fox News and Lou Dobbs. These billion-dollar lawsuits got the attention of media companies. Fox canceled “Lou Dobbs Tonight” even though Dobbs is still under contract.
Americans can expect a major battle in Congress over restricting the power of the internet. Restrictions on Rule 230 will limit the language of Trump supporters. They will oppose alleged limitations of the First Amendment right to protest. But there is considerable support to amend Rule 230.