Why Can’t You Yell Fire?

I think we all know that you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater. It will cause a panic and someone will get hurt. At a minimum, the odds are that someone will also call in a false alarm that distracts the fire department. That is a common-sense limit to free speech. Almost 100 years ago the Supreme Court said that the First Amendment, though it protects freedom of expression, does not protect dangerous speech.

I thought of that the other day when Google and Facebook announced that they would take what I think is a great first step in purging themselves of fake news by cutting off the access those sites have to revenue-generating or promotional ads. As Reuters reported:

Google said it is working on a policy change to prevent websites that misrepresent content from using its AdSense advertising network, while Facebook updated its advertising policies to spell out that its ban on deceptive and misleading content applies to fake news.

As someone who is devoted to the First Amendment, you might wonder why I’m OK with what seem to be limits on free speech. Fake news – or outright lies – are a big source of the divisive atmosphere most of us recognize exists in our country. They’re not hate speech, which I’m actually OK with because it’s so obviously slanted. They’re worse because they wrap themselves in a cloak of truth. As we’ve discussed here many times before, many people – both in business and out – don’t bother to do the research to find out if what’s being presented to them in factual. The presence of these sites and their fabricated BS makes a very difficult search even more so. No, the Pope didn’t endorse Donald Trump and yet 100,000 people shared that story as if His Holiness did.

By removing the financial incentive to create and promulgate this crap, Facebook and Google are taking a positive step in helping those of us who want to make decisions based on factual material. It’s not censorship; it’s arresting the idiot who’s yelling “fire” for a profit. Hopefully, the next step is some method to annotate and fact check the sites that remain. I also see that Twitter is suspending the accounts of some alt-right leaders.:

In a statement, Twitter said: “The Twitter Rules prohibit targeted abuse and harassment, and we will suspend accounts that violate this policy.”

There is no question that Twitter has become a bit of a cesspool and they certainly need to take some actions that clean up the rampant trolling and harassment that goes on. This, however, doesn’t sit as well with me since it starts down the slippery slope of censorship. The difference is my mind is that the fake news folks are making stuff up for profit while the hate groups are expressing (in theory) their own beliefs, however misguided.

Interesting times, aren’t they?

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks

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