Monday, April 21, 2014

Thoughts on Lies and Freedom of Speech

Today, out of frustration with lies that get spread all the time by people like Alex Jones, the conspiracy nut who brought you Infowars and Prison Planet, I said, "I think that if what you say is demonstrably false, you should not have the freedom to get on any broadcast medium and say it."

But there's danger in that thinking.  It seems like a good standard, not to have fraudulent speech out there, but the problem with having that standard is policing it.  The enforcement of the standard runs the danger of becoming political, and nobody should have the power to simply label something "false" and get rid of it.  There are people--politicians among them--who believe evolution is false, who deny that human beings contribute to climate change, who think that the idea that the universe is 13.7 billion years old is fantasy.  Do we want them in charge of policing what's true and what's false?

So...what's the answer?  Ignorance and lack of intellectual curiosity keep people like Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and the people at Fox News in business.  The only way to combat this problem is through education and passionate defense of the truth.  I named conservatives, and I'm not going to fall into the trap of false equivalency, because there are no examples of people on the left who have the propensity to lie who also have the financial backing and broadcast reach of the people I've named.  I don't want anyone spreading falsehoods, especially people who agree with me on most issues--and conservatives should feel the same way.  Why do you want people on your side of politics spreading lies?

It's not even about politics, though, not exclusively.  It's also about superstition, about pseudoscience, about stories made up to generate false sympathy.  People neglect to check facts, so they spread the lies made up to stir emotion and increase ratings or, in the case of the internet and social media, traffic to pages.  Religious organizations often make up stories about atheists trying to "censor" religious speech, when they are really fighting for separation of state and church.  Whether or not atheists are actually doing something (usually it has to do with an alleged war memorial), these organizations know that the stories will whip people into a frenzy fed by religion and patriotism, and will therefore generate revenue and public outcry.

One problem we face in an attempt to get rid of the lies spread on the Internet and broadcast media is the lack of will to have civil discourse.  When people have their worldviews challenged, they get upset, shut down, and tend to stop talking with people who challenge them.  I don't mind talking with people who disagree with me; I've done it quite a bit in my life, but when people start making personal attacks or demonize my positions, I will block them...and that's a problem, because discourse is now closed, and neither of us will have the opportunity to educate the other.  My only defense is stress reduction; I don't need the negativity in my life.  I won't just block someone because they disagree with me; they have to be real jerks about it, but it's unfortunate that we can't keep the dialogue open and be civil.  I will also block people when they spread misinformation, have me demonstrate to them that their information is false, and double down on that misinformation.  It just doesn't seem worthwhile to argue with the willfully ignorant...but again, they never have the opportunity to be educated when they're isolated into an echo chamber.

Government regulation certainly isn't the answer, due to the danger of politicizing information, but what about the market?  The only way the market can regulate speech in a way that falsehoods aren't spread is if the demand is reduced, and the only way to reduce that demand is through education...but that's another problem.  Education itself is politicized information.  Education standards aren't made by objective bodies; they're made by politicians.  Critical thinking is not a priority in education.  Science and reasoning aren't stressed enough by education standards in all places.  Students aren't taught to think for themselves; they learn to memorize facts and do busy work.  It's not conducive to combating ignorance.  When people are taught to absorb and accept as truth the information they're fed, they are prime customers for people in the business of spreading misinformation.

Nobody said the preservation of freedom of speech (and other protections guaranteed by the Constitution) would be easy.  It would be nice to live in a world where lies weren't broadcast far and wide, and someone was able to regulate the lies properly, but there's too much danger of censorship of reality when we put the regulation in the hands of the wrong people...and yet, the education that we must provide to people in order for them to have the tools to combat misinformation must either come from a source that is not politicized, or the politicians we elect must be as objective as possible when making the education standards.  The latter simply doesn't seem possible with today's toxic political division.

I welcome any thoughts on this issue.

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