Jim Crawford: Is social media responsible for any misleading content?

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 10, 2023

This week, on the day we annually celebrate our freedom, U.S. District Court Judge Terry Doughty ruled that the government must restrict its contact with social media to protect free speech rights. 

Doughty cited in his ruling several examples where Biden administration officials met with various media platform executives to consider what would constitute a legal liability for misinformation passed through their social media accounts. 

In Doughty’s opinion, the Biden administration posed a threat to free speech by seeking social media restrictions or bans on false claims and dangerous lies suggesting violence. 

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Doughty, a Republican Trump appointee, echoed a relatively new (Since Biden’s election) claim that the government has been unduly influencing free speech rights. In this case, those rights seem to be an unlimited right to lie to the general public on social media with impunity.

Republicans take offense when banned from social media while advancing lies and misinformation. Their umbrage is on the perception that they, Republicans, are being singled out in being exiled for bad behavior online. 

They have many examples of citing the claim of unfair restrictions on free speech. Alex Jones, a well-known conservative podcaster, recently lost a civil case that included a $46M fine for his free speech rights. Jones has advanced that the Sandy Hook killings were staged with actors, and the parents of the dead children were lying. 

Jones has also used his free speech rights to claim that the Boston Marathon bombing was an FBI job, that 9/11 was an “inside job” by the Bush administration, and that “Pizzagate” exposed a Democratic Party-led child sex trafficking ring.

Other conservative Republicans have used their online free speech to advance misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines, undermining both trust in science and government. During the period when the pandemic deaths were rising, this misinformation may have caused unnecessary deaths and, by doing so, posed a public health crisis.

Likewise, the online conspiracy theory, the “Great Replacement Theory,” a long-discredited argument that brown-skinned people are being allowed into America to replace white people with brown people, has found eternal life on rightwing podcasts and social media sites.

But what really rankles our Republican friends is being challenged by facts over the false claim that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Trump did not win. He lost. 

Yet the persistent Internet claims, often pulled from media platforms based on being false, limit the free speech of Republicans who support the ex-president regardless of the troubling facts of the 2020 election defeat. 

This so bothers Republicans that they claim the “Deep State” (defined as Democrats in elective office) has corrupted the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI by investigating several actions by the previous president.

And now comes the Republican judge, the credulous Terry Doughty, arguing that free speech will die if lies and dangerous misinformation online are muted by truth and fact. It is the logical progression of a political party that sees grievances everywhere it glances, in every act that refutes the right to lie. 

Facebook and Twitter banned Donald Trump for his lies about the 2020 election and his language of violence on their platforms. Now, Republicans are fighting back, demanding justice, or at least freedom at the cost of truth.

Let us not forget that free speech does deserve protection, for our freedom lies in that protection. But free speech also has exceptions for Incitement and the Superspreading of bold lies and misinformation.

 The online world still struggles to define how to protect speech yet prevent dangerous speech that divides and threatens our foundations and institutions.

Jim Crawford is a retired educator and political enthusiast living here in the Tri-State.