EDITORIAL

Why do we allow politicians to lie?

Posted 11/6/19

Exaggerating, bending the truth and telling outright lies have long been part of the political process. Judicial candidates for district attorney Jim Farrell and judge Cynthia Dolan traded charges …

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EDITORIAL

Why do we allow politicians to lie?

Posted

Exaggerating, bending the truth and telling outright lies have long been part of the political process. Judicial candidates for district attorney Jim Farrell and judge Cynthia Dolan traded charges last week, each accusing the other of spreading falsehoods about their opponent. The conflict was sparked by a mailer, and Dolan’s camp was sufficiently offended that the Sullivan County Democratic Committee filed complaints with the New York State Attorney General, the New York Board of Elections Enforcement Council and the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics. It’s not clear that any of those offices will take any action in response to the campaign materials. But it is clear that had those offending messages been posted by the candidates on Facebook, Facebook officials would have taken no action to block them or take them down.

Facebook executive Nick Clegg, a former deputy prime minister of Britain, confirmed in a speech in September that the company would not change or block speech posted by politicians, even if the speech violates rules imposed on other users. The confirmation of the policy sparked howls of protest from good-government groups and even some politicians. One could easily make a convincing argument that the speech of politicians deserves greater scrutiny and fact-checking than speech by other members of a democracy.

Facebook executives, however, have made clear in public statements since Clegg’s speech that they have no desire to be the arbiters of political truth for their two billion users around the world. They say their position is an acknowledgement of the importance of free speech in a democracy, and politicians should be allowed to say whatever they want, and the public should determine what is true and what is false.

The Trump campaign recently ran a video on Facebook that asserted that Joe Biden—the former vice president and current front-runner in the Democrat race to become the presidential candidate—had offered $1 billion in aid to Ukraine if it blocked an investigation into Biden’s son and the company he was connected to. The allegation had been debunked on numerous news outlets, and CNN refused to air it. Facebook not only aired it, but refused Biden’s request to block it because the video did not violate the company’s policies.

This is a far cry from the role of traditional media outlets and publications. Most media companies, including newspapers, television and radio stations have standards regarding political ads and speech that are enforced. If a politician submits a political ad to The River Reporter and someone here knows or suspects it holds false information, the advertiser is contacted and the difference is ironed out. The same applies to letters to the editor and other content. We have blocked political ads in the past, and we have decided not to publish certain letters because of erroneous content.

For the most powerful social media company in the world to give some of the most powerful people in the world the freedom to say anything they want, even if it’s an outright lie, is not only undemocratic (because the company is giving a power to politicians that other people don’t have) but it also says to everyone in our society that it’s okay for our leaders to lie to us, con us and deceive us.

As most everyone knows, 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia interfered in the presidential election in 2016 in an attempt to help Donald Trump win and cause Hillary Clinton to lose. The new confirmation of Facebook’s policy has, not surprisingly, sparked calls for serious regulation of social media platforms.

“We should have all learned the lessons from 2016 and social media companies should have to bear more responsibility to prevent lies from being spread against anyone,” said a spokesperson for Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign.

Even the person responsible for doing away with the national policy of net neutrality, Ajit Pai, the chair of the Federal Communication Commission, has voiced the view that social media may require regulation. “The greatest threat to a free and open internet has been the unregulated Silicon Valley tech giants that do, in fact, today decide what you see and what you don’t. There’s no transparency. There’s no consumer protections, and I think bipartisan members of both congressional chambers have now come to that realization,” Pai said in June.

On the other side of the political issue, the social media company Twitter announced on October 25 that it would stop running political ads altogether. If Facebook sticks with this policy of allowing politicians to lie without consequence, politicians may eventually step forward and change the policy for them.

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