There Oughta Be A Law

So here is something I bet you didn’t know. There is a law against airing false information on TV. OK, so it’s technically not a law – it’s an FCC rule – and it doesn’t apply to cable TV since that’s not an over the air medium like TV or radio. Those latter media are prohibited from broadcasting false information about a crime or a catastrophe if the broadcaster knows the information is false and will cause substantial “public harm” if aired. With respect to other news, The FCC is prohibited by law from engaging in censorship or infringing on First Amendment rights of the press. It is, however, illegal for broadcasters to intentionally distort the news, and the FCC may act
on complaints, if there is documented evidence of such behavior from persons with direct personal knowledge.

That’s one reason why you can generally trust things you hear and see on broadcast outlets rather than cable or streaming outlets. It also makes me wonder why the same sort of standard isn’t governing the plethora of made-up misinformation that surrounds us.  What got me thinking about this today is all of the reporting about Facebook’s failures when it comes to fighting misleading posts on their platform. They say it’s in the name of free speech. I think it’s in the name of commerce.

Several advertisers have suspended or ended their spending on Facebook and other social media over this issue as well as the proliferation of hate speech. Is it really a problem? Um, have you been on Facebook or Twitter? The latter at least is attempting to deal with the issue. Facebook isn’t, other than paying lip service to the idea of cleaning up their sewer. But as this article and this one point out, they’re failing because they really don’t seem to be trying.

Is it more than unsavory speech with which we’re dealing? Yes, it is. Say I spend a lot of money targeting voters who I think will vote against me with a very realistic looking ad saying that the election has been delayed a week due to the pandemic in an effort to suppress your vote? Maybe I pay to put up a number of posts saying that the police are strip-searching all voters when they enter the polls? If you’ve paid any attention at all to what happened in the last national election, you know that there were many groups, both American and foreign, who did things along those lines. I’m pretty sure that’s not the kind of free speech the founders had in mind.

So I think there ought to be a law very similar to the rules that broadcasters live by. Knowingly disseminating false information should be penalized, and repeat offenders should do more than pay fines. When I worked in TV, losing a license was always in the back of our minds. Maybe it’s time that we de-platformed the folks who are polluting the political and other discourses even if it means shutting down a huge business like Facebook. After all, in their day, TV stations were pretty big businesses too. What do you think?

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Filed under digital media, Reality checks

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