“If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media, where so many people are getting their information in sound bites and snippets off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.” – Barack Obama
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. – First Amendment to the US Constitution
As I write this, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is en route to the US Capitol for the swearing in ceremony that will make him the 46th President of the United States.
He has his work cut out for him.
Not only does he have a great deal to do to recover the country from four years of extreme turnover, but his team will also have to pick up whatever pieces are being left behind by an administration that had the least qualified people of all time in charge of things (i.e. Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education and Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy). That won’t be his biggest challenge, though.
America has been in what many have labeled a “post-fact” era for the last couple of decades, but that was ramped up to warp speed when the reality TV president took the reins of the country in 2016. Donald Trump seemed to just reinvent himself, his policies, his cabinet and the political reality of his Twitterverse followers as often as he sent the Secret Service out for Big Macs. Even as I write this there are millions of Americans (39% according to a recent poll) who suspect the November election was either actually won by Trump or was in some way influenced to give Joe Biden the victory.
How do we move forward from this?
We need to have a serious conversation as a country. We need to talk about how we decide to what extent those who claim to be news outlets are allowed to completely fabricate what they report. It’s one thing to entertain people by telling them what they want to hear, but to claim you’re reporting news while you’re also calling people to violence, claiming fair elections are fraudulent, inspiring riots… at some point doesn’t a line have to be drawn?
In 1919 Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a Supreme Court decision in Schenck vs the United States that “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic” is not covered under the protections of freedom of speech as detailed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Surely telling people their favorite candidate actually won an election he lost and inciting them to invade the US Capitol building with intent to kill elected representatives falls under the same category as shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater.
One of the big questions, of course, is who actually gets to decide what is fair and accurate and what is fabrication and sensationalism. I don’t know the answer to that question, though I have to say it’s disappointing that we even have to ask. Imagine if ESPN suddenly started reporting that Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James actually played for the Boston Celtics and that they, rather than the Lakers, had won the championship last season. Would 15 million sports fans buy green LeBron jerseys and actually accept these alternate facts as the truth? It’s hard to believe that they would, but given the current climate in America I’m really not entirely certain.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” – US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Talking about limiting free speech is a slippery slope, and deciding who gets to decide what’s true and what isn’t is equally slippery. All I know is that as long as we have millions of people in our country who are completely misinformed, and intentionally so, we will never be unified. We will never truly be the United States if America.