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Juan Williams: Murder, lies and the internet

Are we living through the movie “Idiocracy”? 

In that spoof, Americans were dumbed down by a diet of silly television shows and stupid advertising, as well as porn stars and wrestlers famous for being famous. That led voters to elect political leaders who took the nation to the verge of starvation because they did not know to water crops. 

Well, that’s an old satire. 

But what can you say about today’s real life congressional leaders? 

It is no joke to watch them standing by in the last month as social media companies give platforms to gunmen to plan violence online. One even live-streamed murder. 

After the massacres, the social media platforms featured lies about the shootings being phony “false flag” operations staged by actors. Fake photos were posted to mislead people into thinking one gunman was transgender.  

And this comes on top of the daily online flood of hate speech, conspiracies, racism and outright lies that divide Americans. 

This crisis of disinformation demands a response from Congress to protect the American people against a threat to democracy and national security. 

But in the last month, Washington politicians looked the other way while Nina Jankowicz, a 33-year-old cybersecurity expert, was forced to halt her effort at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to alert Americans to the lies, propaganda, and conspiracies on social media. 

She was forced to quit by the online bullies she was assigned to control. 

She was subjected to “mischaracterizations across social media and websites [run by far-right operatives] with the aim of discrediting and attacking anyone who seeks to challenge them,” according to The Washington Post. 

Jankowicz’ foes tarred her as potential censor with the power of dystopian novelist George Orwell’s ominous “Big Brother,” a big government enforcer deciding what is true and what is false.  

Pure nonsense. 

No government official was given the power to take down anything. The new agency had no power of enforcement. It was simply an attempt to keep track of all the online trash being found by various law enforcement agencies. 

Yet Republicans in Congress played politics. They blamed the Biden administration for failing to anticipate smears coming from the right. And they faulted DHS for giving the new agency an awkward name: “Disinformation Governance Board.” Not a word about the trolls or the bots. 

In the last decade, leaked documents from big tech companies, congressional testimony and news investigations all prove that the free market has not been able to curb the bullying, smears, phony images, and political manipulation being allowed by social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.   

That leaves government as the only viable route to the regulation and oversight necessary to stop these companies from destroying democracy for profit. 

I am sympathetic to the “slippery slope” argument. I detest censorship in any form, either from government or from private companies. 

Twelve years ago, I was fired by NPR for telling my then-colleague Bill O’Reilly on Fox News that in the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, I got nervous when I saw people dressed in Muslim garb boarding an airplane. 

By acknowledging my personal fears, I was making the case for honest debate in the face of online bigotry and fearmongering about construction of an Islamic mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks. 

My point was to prevent Americans from falling into policy mistakes again, like the denial of constitutional rights for Japanese-Americans who were interned during the Second World War. 

But my argument was lost on the politically correct crowd who quickly labeled me an anti-Muslim bigot in need of psychiatric help.  

As I wrote in my book about that episode, “Muzzled — The Assault on Honest Debate,” many people only want to hear news and opinion that confirms their preexisting point of view. 

But there is a difference between disinformation and censorship. 

For the last decade, the internet has created a feast of disinformation, sending people down rabbit holes of anger, hate and mockery where they never hear a different point of view. 

Now Congress says constitutional protection of free speech prevents any step to rein in online hate or, in the case of the Buffalo and Uvalde massacres, bullying trolls who carry out murder. 

In the past, Congress refused to do anything while bots under the control of foreigners interfered in U.S. politics. They are similarly silent about human traffickers using the internet for evil. 

Studies have shown that tech firms employ algorithms to elevate hateful, violent content because it is addictive, money-making clickbait. 

Meanwhile, Congress acts as if Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes never wrote that the Constitution’s protection of free speech is not a license for anyone to yell fire in a crowded theatre. 

Today’s provocateurs yell much worse on the internet. 

Yet the politicians are standing idle. 

They refuse to confront disinformation. They look away from the shower of white supremacist hatred toward Black people, immigrants, Asians and Jews. 

And from Uvalde to Buffalo and beyond, the online attacks continue. Some lead to real blood and death. 

This is no movie — we are living the real “Idiocracy.” 

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel. 

Tags Censorship disinformation Free speech George Orwell Juan Williams Social media

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