As members of the working press, we place the first amendment on a pedestal, for it is from this law that we derive a mandate to pursue the truth without fear of government interference. It is the same time-honored amendment that grants us the freedom to speak our minds free from government censure. There is a caveat, however, and that is that one man’s truth can be another’s lie, and as journalists we are required to make a distinction before it goes into print.
In the meantime, the world’s largest social media companies, Google and Facebook, which now soak up 58 percent of digital advertising revenue, have come under intense scrutiny for their refusal to vet postings that are not factual or in some cases inflammatory. During a recent hearing before Congress, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, said that his company’s stance toward political advertising, even if it was known to contain falsehoods – or blatant lies in extreme cases – was unchanged. That the information would appear as is.
The billionaire’s defense of his company’s laissezfaire approach to lies is that the first amendment right to free speech trumps mendacity. We are familiar with the argument, because at the turn of the 19th Century, when yellow journalism gripped the land, two newspaper publishers in particular allowed all manner of rubbish to waltz across their pages. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal engaged in a bitter newspaper war that dragged anyone who read them through the gutters of the Big Apple.
That’s not to say that the newspapers did not also publish serious news. They did, but by the definition of “yellow journalism,” so named for a popular comic strip of the time, the “Yellow Kid,” they also employed scare headlines in huge print; lavish pictures or imaginary drawings; and faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts.
The two warring publishers even stood accused of having drummed up enough anti-Cuba sentiment to launch the Spanish-American War in 1898. A drawing that appeared on the front page of the New York Journal is evidence of the kind of inflammatory reporting popular at the time. It depicted a nude American female tourist being strip-searched by leering Cuban soldiers.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should be. Today’s social media operates in much the same way as the “Yellow Press” except that now anyone can be a publisher. Got an axe to grind with a friend? How about posting a one-sided version on Facebook? Are you mad at the mayor? You could always hint on social media that he has been doing favors for constituents and suddenly has shiny new toys. Or how about shaming your political opponent by posting a doctored video of him in black face on YouTube?
The list goes on, and the common denominator is that Facebook and Google have declined to put an end to lies. Google did last week marginally harden its stance on political advertisers, saying that ads targeting narrow categories of Web users based on their political affiliation would not longer be allowed. Instead those ads in search and on YouTube may only target people down to the postal code level.
In the meantime, false ads race willy-nilly across the cybersphere. Just this week, a document was leaked that spelled out how the Republican Party in Texas planned buy up domains that look like they belong to Democratic candidates and load the sites with negative information. No doubt the Democrats will respond in kind, but how are we to discern the truth with so much disinformation flooding the news.
The “Yellow Press” eventually came to its senses, but only after people began to be turned off by its pseudo-journalistic excesses. When newspaper purchases began to ebb, publishers got the picture.
Today the majority of print and broadcast editors are careful to screen the copy that crosses their desks. Not to do so is to lose the respect and the business of the news-consuming public. Facebook and Google should have to play by the same rules because their brand of free speech is choking our democracy.