The Weimar Republic in Germany was hailed as one of the purest democracies of the 20th century. Built on dialog and openness, it collapsed under the weight of a crumbling economy, and gave way to the Nazis. One of the biggest issues that historians often discuss about the fall of the Weimar Republic was its inability to censure the writings of Adolf Hitler. His book Mein Kampf was the foundation of his rise to power, building conspiracy theories of hatred, and blaming Germany’s failure on others.
Modern day America is nothing like Germany in the early 1930s — but the issue of shutting down lies and hatred are just as real. Social media and television providers now struggle with false news sources and content. YouTube houses large content providers who report lies, conspiracy theories and pure fiction. So, the debate about the role of freedom of expression in a democracy is one the biggest communication issues we face today.
For me it comes down to free speech versus hate speech. In most democracies, the idea is that society will police itself: That educated citizens will reject false ideas outright. But to achieve that level of self-awareness a society needs to have a sense of the collective — that citizens have a responsibility. That seems to have eroded over the past decade, along with the decline of traditional media. First, Americans moved from mainstream non-politically aligned news, to more biased and politically oriented outlets, and then to more fringe and agenda driven outlets. As these false profits grew in scope, they used social media to grow their base, and abandoned actual reporting and facts for radical viewpoints and extreme ideas. That degraded into conspiracy theories, and outright lies.
As lies replaced the facts, and outrageous theories became common place, the nation’s honesty compass became corrupted. This can be seen in a recent poll that said that only 66% of Republican voters believe that Joe Biden was the legitimately elected president.
Because citizens are curating their news sources, and many opt for opinion over news reporting. Americans have abdicated their civic duty to curate news and are failing to distinguish between facts and lies.
So, while Americans have the right to free speech, they are not freely given the right to traffic lies. Nor, is hate speech a right. Directing people to violence, to hate and to destroy are not basic human rights. Elevating lies to the same level as the truth, just like putting bias opinions on the same level as real news coverage is dangerous. So, stopping these violent voices from rising is not censorship. To censure is to silence a valid voice. But it is unlawful to yell fire in a crowded theater, and it is equally dangerous to mislabel peaceful protesters as rioters, to call immigrants criminals and rapists, and to lie about the results of an election.
Inciting violence, making death threats and sowing hatred are not a form of free expression, they are criminal, and it is up to YouTube, cable providers, social media and all of us not simply to reject lies and threats, but to curate discussion. And that applies to
platform such as WordPress, that often host white supremist groups pages, pages which are used to incite violence and spread hate. A lie that is allowed to stand becomes a truth to many. How can any forget the power of John McCain telling a voter that she was wrong — that Barack Obama was not a foreign-born Muslim - and then saying that he was a good man? It is time for the social media bosses and content makers to rise to the level of the late Senator McCain. Facebook and Twitter need to shut all the
hatred and lies down.