Weeds of criminal conspiracy, anarchy and despotism cannot grow in inhospitable ground. Like all weeds, they seek out fertile soil to find the nutrients they need.
Today, that fertile soil is an unregulated internet that makes no one accountable for damaging lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Last week’s insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. was simply the physical manifestation of the anarchy on the Internet that reinforces and radicalizes users who thrive in a digital ecosystem where posting bigger and bigger outlandish claims attracts larger and larger followings.
President Donald Trump is the poster boy for success in that ecosystem.
The Washington Post documented more than 20,000 lies from President Trump during his time in office through July 2020. As they grew, so did his following on Twitter.
The most egregious lie was that the November 2020 election somehow was “stolen” from him. It is the lie that last week ignited the largest attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812.
Unlike the internet businesses that operate social media sites and chat rooms, newspapers like this one are legally liable for what they publish.
Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Parler and Gab are not held responsible for what users post on their platforms, defended by the 1996 enactment of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that “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.”
The act’s stated goal was “to offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.”
The law relieved “interactive service providers” from legal liability for objectionable content. In other words, the law treats comment boards like telephone services that carry communications, but bear no responsibility for content.
The difference between telephone services and social media platforms became painfully and violently obvious last week.
Telephones are a one-to-one means of communication while the platforms allow an individual or an organization to broadcast from one to many, which range in number from a handful to millions with the click of a computer keyboard.
After the Capitol riot, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon suddenly woke up to the fact that their services were the fertile soil in which the riots had been planned and fomented. They began to root out the weeds of malevolent misinformation.
Users were outraged. They responded with the allegation that they were being deprived of free speech.
They do not understand that speech in America is only free up to the point of inciting or conspiracy to riot, which are federal crimes.
The internet has allowed the false assumption that anyone can say anything without legal consequence to proliferate.
In public hearings before Congress, the companies that own social media platforms had promoted the idea that “information wants to be free” in their vigorous defense of the gargantuan revenues that they derive from the ecosystem in which insurrection eventually grew.
They bear responsibility for last week’s attack on the U.S. Capitol and for the current threats to all 50 state Capitols reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The perilous question of our time lies within the turmoil. Will America make Internet businesses and users responsible for their posts or will the nation do nothing while the poisonous weeds of anarchy and despotism strangle democracy?
“Our View” represents the opinion of the newspaper editorial board, which is made up of members of its board of directors. Remarks may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.