When I was working in Duluth in 1998, a young reporter came to see me. More tech-savvy than me, he told me in a hushed voice about some of the services that Monica Lewinsky was providing to President Clinton in the Oval Office.
I was, to put it mildly, shocked. I had read nothing about such activity in the mainstream media. He explained that it was all over the internet.
That was the first time I realized that we were heading into a different way of receiving information. Prior to that, people relied on TV for the headlines, and newspapers for the details. Google did not start until 1998, Facebook until 2003 and Twitter in 2006.
Until social media came along, the traditional media were gatekeepers, telling readers those things they thought were the most newsworthy. Although working at a more local level, my attitude was generally that any time a reader sent us news or a letter, we would try to find a way to publish it.
As the years rolled along, however, we eventually set limits on political letters. Politicians understood that letters were well-read and essentially free advertising. We tried to be fair to everybody, but took pity on our readers, limiting letters in favor of any candidate to three per issue. Not surprisingly, we managed to offend and frustrate campaigns and their advocates on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, social media continued to grow by leaps and bounds. Some of it was good and some not. With no gatekeepers, online users could say anything about a candidate and the truth took the hind seat. Over the years, I had several conversations with Mark Anfinson, who is the attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association and an expert on First Amendment issues about this. I did not understand why our newspaper website could carry any message somebody wanted to post, but the newspaper itself had to worry about libel and its own credibility.
In 1995, he explained, Congress had passed the Communications Decency Act. Buried in the law is Section 230, which says in part, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Think about that this way: Many newspapers are printed at a printing plant not necessarily owned by the newspaper company. The newspaper is responsible for all of the content in the publication. The printing plant is not. That’s why most newspapers won’t run unsigned letters. The credibility of the newspaper is at stake; why read the paper if you don’t think it is factual and confines opinions to its editorial pages?
Section 230 unleashed a monster that no one is quite sure how to cage. Facebook has more than 1 billion users and YouTube users upload 100 hours of video every minute. How much of it is true? New York Times columnist Tom Friedman once wrote that people should treat internet posts with the same skepticism as words scrawled on the wall of a public restroom.
In 2016, a few weeks before the election, an old friend called to tell me about “Pizzagate.” This was a made-up story that Bill and Hillary Clinton were part of a group of pedophiles who met in a D.C. pizzeria and rode with Jeffrey Epstein on the “Lolita Express.” I didn’t believe it then, and still don’t. I never wrote a word about it, thinking it was beyond belief. It’s been widely discredited since. And yet, some people still believe it.
Since then, however, other big stories have come up, hurting the credibility of the mainstream media who report most of the national news. From the moment Donald Trump was elected, Democrats said that he colluded with Russia to spread false information about Hillary. The fact was it was a Democrat-financed disinformation campaign that the Dems took all the way to their failed impeachment trial.
Then, in 2020, the New York Post reported on Hunter Biden’s laptop contents, noting that he was receiving huge payments from the Chinese. The mainstream media downplayed it until after the election; it remains doubtful that the Chinese would have had much interest in Hunter except for his dad.
Now, in a move worthy of George Orwell’s “1984” Truth Ministry, the Biden Administration has decided to create a Disinformation Governance Board within the Department of Homeland Security. A “disinformation specialist” named Nina Jankowicz, who is known for playing up the Russian collusion narrative and playing down the Hunter Biden laptop revelations, will lead it. And they think they are going to improve the internet’s credibility by combing through billions of Facebook posts to cull out disinformation from Russians, Chinese and Iranians, not to mention Republicans?
The only way to improve credibility on the internet is to break up Big Tech, similar to the phone companies that were broken up 30 years ago. Let one company own the platform, and let another provide the content. Then hold the content provider responsible for its posts in the same way that newspapers are. Make all posters identify themselves with their real names.
Big tech would be decimated, but letting one political party or another censor political posts is just taking us further away from our free speech rights embedded in the U.S. Constitution.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at email@example.com.