Over the past few months I have not been able to go a single day without hearing about fake news; Facebook’s and Google’s confirmation bias bubble; and the polarization that these have created in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump. However, this is not anything new. We have heard stories recently about how a fake news story about the Clintons led a person to shoot up a pizza parlor in Washington D.C.; how fake news stories about both candidates potentially affected the outcome of the election.
Yet, in the late 19th century fake news was at the heart of a fierce competition for readership between two New York papers: Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Both would use fantastical headlines and patently fake news stories to try and out sell the other. This came at time when tensions with Spain over Cuba and the Philippines were high. Most of the stories were focused on a growing anti-Spanish sentiment culminating in a story about a sinister plot by the Spaniards to sink the U.S.S. Maine. This era of yellow journalism ended shortly after the Spanish American War. Heart’s paper the New York Journal published an editorial calling for President McKinley’s assassination shortly before it occurred. There was no significant tie between the editorial and the assassination, yet it shocked both Hearst and Pulitzer out of their sensational attention grabbing head line phase.
Why did the government allow both news-papers to publish false stories?
The First Amendment forbids Congress (and through the Fourteenth Amendment, States and local governments) from making any law that abridges the freedom of speech and the press. The Supreme Court on multiple occasions has protected these freedoms stating that the only cure for false speech is true speech. Even if it wanted to the government is unable to protect the public from fake news because of the strong prohibition on any limitations of speech by the government. The same prohibition does not apply to private entities. Thus, social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter can and do censor speech. Facebook will censor and or remove anything that is obscene, considered hate speech, overly offensive and or a call to violence. Facebook primarily relies on the user community to report posts which are then reviewed by subcontractors who decide as to whether the offending post should be taken down. This is something that only a private entity could do, because as stated above (with a few exceptions) the government would be unable to censor these posts.
The question remains, is having Facebook, Twitter and other such entities censor speech a good thing? Should it be treated like yellow journalism was in the 19th Century, allow fake news to run its course and wait for the market place of ideas to correct itself? I will pick this up next time.
U.S. Diplomacy and Yellow Journalism, 1895–1898
A Time Line of Yellow Journalism
President William McKinley: Assassinated by an Anarchist
Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927)
Justice Brandeis’ Concurring Opinion
Technology and society have changed since the days of yellow journalism. The readership of the New York World and the New York Journal did not extend much further than the New York City area. Any fake news they printed stayed within New York City limits. At present the internet and more specifically social networks allow news organizations to reach a much broader reader base. Most modern-day consumers turn to the internet for their news. Some go to trusted websites others turn to comedy shows, and some go to their social media news feeds. While competing for a reader’s money is fundamentally different from competing for clicks to a website the headlines still need to be attention grabbing to generate the number of views that web page advertisers want to see. This has led to headlines such as ‘Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President’ and the briefly popular ‘The Amish Commit Their Vote to Donald Trump; Mathematically Guaranteeing Him A Presidential Victory’. These and other similarly false articles made their rounds on social media.
In addition to blatant content censorship, Facebook censors in another way. Facebook creates echo chambers. Like what the New York papers were doing in 19th century giving the reader what they like and what reflects their ideals. In the 19th century it was national pride and anti-Spanish, pro-Cuba sentiment. Today the content is specific to each user. Given this awesome power to guide users’ thoughts in a way that makes George Orwell’s 1984 seem like present day the public has demanded that Facebook do what government cannot. Shield them from the fake news that has begun to pollute the echo chambers of their news feeds, people have demanded that Facebook become the arbiters of truth lending more credence to news stories that appear in their news feed. In response to these public outcries for action Facebook has created a method for removing fake news detailed here.
However, the public’s demand for Facebook to further censor their news feed and Facebook’s, admittedly, limited capitulation flies in the face of the First of Amendment. The cure for fake news is not Big Brother sorting the false statements from the true statements for us; it is for ourselves and others to think critically about our sources and if we have reason to doubt and distrust what we have read. Then it is incumbent upon ourselves to speak truthfully to share the facts (not alternative facts) and allow others in turn to form their own opinions of our work. There is no reason to deny the purveyors of fake news a place in our news feed; some people may derive entertainment from reading the outlandish stories in much the same way many find The Onion (http://www.theonion.com/) to be an enjoyable read. The Onion itself is among most prolific purveyors of fake news. I know what I ask is not easy, but it may be necessary to allow the market place of ideas to thrive.
A Time Line of Yellow Journalism http://fs2.american.edu/wjc/www/yellowjo/timeline.html
Alcott and Gentzkow: Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election Available at: https://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/fakenews.pdf
How A Prankster Convinced People The Amish Would Win Trump The Election https://www.buzzfeed.com/ishmaeldaro/paul-horner-amish-trump-vote-hoax?utm_term=.qigKA6mdz#.kmdgM9lVw
From Hate Speech To Fake News: The Content Crisis Facing Mark Zuckerberg http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/11/17/495827410/from-hate-speech-to-fake-news-the-content-crisis-facing-mark-zuckerberg
What Facebook Is Doing to Combat Fake News https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/pogue-what-facebook-is-doing-to-combat-fake-news/
Facebook Details Its New Plan To Combat Fake News Stories http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/12/15/505728377/facebook-details-its-new-plan-to-combat-fake-news-stories