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Finding our way out of the post-truth era

AP Photo/Julio Cortez
Insurrectionists loyal to President Trump try to break through a police barrier on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol. David Alan Blair, a Maryland man who used a lacrosse stick attached to a Confederate battle flag to shove a police officer during the riot, was sentenced on July 13, 2022, to five months in prison, according to the Justice Department.

Thomas Jefferson repeatedly wrote that democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry. He called it “the best defense against tyranny.” Moreover, he believed that if democracies go off the rails, well-informed citizens “may be relied on to set them to rights.”

Unfortunately, many Americans are well-duped rather than well-informed today, and millions of citizens, apparently, are okay with that.

Lies and disinformation are cancer that metastasizes quickly. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its pants on. That was before the internet. Today, truth doesn’t even have time to get out of bed. Misinformation and disinformation create first impressions that are nearly impossible to correct.

There’s some comfort in truth’s own truism. “The Truth Will Out” means it’s inevitable facts that facts will emerge sooner or later, like flowers that push into the sunlight no matter how much dirt we pile on them. Fox News, the most-watched network on cable television, discovered this recently when it apparently got caught with its pants down. Anchors and executives admitted off air that they intentionally fed their audience fake and distorted news — content that they said privately was “totally off the rails” and “completely bs.”They believe their 2.3 million primetime viewers want it and would turn the channel if Fox didn’t dish out content they wanted to see — regardless of the facts.

We have entered the “post-truth era.” Truth and facts have been devalued even at the highest levels of government. Former President Donald Trump made more than 30,500 false or misleading statements during his time in office and continued his “Big Lie” about the 2020 election after he left. His followers demonstrated how dangerous lies can be. The Jan. 6 insurrection resulted in 1,000 assaults on federal officers and police, injuries to more than 130, as well as the deaths of five others in the following days, including four by suicide. Afterward, Trump called the rioters “great patriots.”

Yet, there has been no pushback from conservative voters, the Republican Party or law enforcement agencies against Trump running for president again. Polls show 28 percent of Republicans will support him no matter what.

Now, artificial intelligence (AI)has taken the disinformation toolbox to an unprecedented level with “fakeware,” which allows users, with relatively little skill, to create fake but remarkably accurate-looking images of people and their voices, also know as “deepfakes.” Fakeware can put words into the mouths of people who didn’t say them, allowing virtually anyone to humiliate and ruin the reputations of others.

We can’t run a democracy or civil society this way. University of Pennsylvania History Professor Sophia Rosenfeld describes our situation this way:

“Conventional wisdom has it that for democracy to work, it is essential that we — the citizens — agree in some minimal way about what reality looks like. We are not, of course, all required to think the same way about big questions, or believe the same things, or hold the same values; in fact, it is expected that we won’t. But somehow or other, we need to have acquired some very basic, shared understanding about what causes what, what’s broadly desirable, what’s dangerous, and how to characterize what’s already happened,” she says.

So, what can we do? First, we must restore transparency and responsibility as fundamental to our social contract. This deserves attention from Congress, think tanks, educational institutions, foundations and a presidential commission. The goal is to defend truth and facts without violating the First Amendment. For example:

  • Should the developers of technologies like fakeware be required to include features to prevent misuse? For example, manufactured images and vocalizations could include a disclaimer identifying them as fake. Images and vocalizations without that disclaimer would be subject to prosecution as identity theft.
  • Should art and writings mainly produced by AI be clearly identified so they cannot be copyrighted or claimed as human creations?
  • Should social media reject anonymous postings so abusive users are identified and held accountable? Could AI help trace the origins of false and abusive speech more quickly? The First Amendment does not protect fraud, defamation, death threats, fighting words or speech integral to imminent lawless action. Perhaps social media could extend its standards to bar speech that’s racist, sexist, antigay, bullying, meant to terrorize or to express hostility to a religion, plus any content that compromises national security or violates the privacy rights established by Third, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution.
  • Should we reconsider the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) roles in policing fake news?

Regarding fake news, the FCC forbids radio and television broadcasts of false information when the broadcaster knows it will cause substantial public harm or distort the news. However, the FCC wrote the rule narrowly to avoid infringing on the First Amendment rights of the press.

The FCC considers news distorted when it is significant and deliberately intended to mislead viewers and listeners. The rule doesn’t apply to mere differences of opinion over the truth or validity of a news program. The agency puts the burden of proof on the complainant to show the broadcaster deliberately intended to mislead its viewers or listeners.

The policy would be more effective if the FCC made sure the public was aware of it and the agency investigated complaints of egregious distortions rather than requiring viewers and listeners to do so. In addition, the FCC should toughen its actions against proven violators. And Congress should explore how it could extend the standards to cable television, print media and social media.

As always, however, the final solution is up to voters. We must stop electing liars to positions of public trust. And that’s a fact.

William S. Becker is co-editor and a contributor to “Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People,” a collection of more than 30 essays by American thought leaders. He also is a contributor to the upcoming book, “Democracy in a Hotter Time”. Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.

Tags 2020 election 2022 midterm elections Disinformation Donald Trump Donald Trump misinformation Politics Thomas Jefferson Winston Churchill

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