When we think big purchases, most probably we think about cars. And we know that finding value is important in making this expensive purchase. Various publications have consumer value as their editorial mission. Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping come to mind. And there are a number of online ratings on where to eat or stay—think Yelp and Trip Advisor.
Paying too much for too little occupies our mind. And you don’t want to suffer through a bad meal. But what about news and information? Does it nourish, distract, or mislead.
In 1897, Adolph S. Ochs, the owner of The New York Times (NYT), created the famous slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” which still appears on the NYT masthead.
Most recently it headlined a story which picked up the Hamas line that Israel had bombed a hospital in Gaza killing hundreds of people. It’s competitor the New York Post followed up: “The New York Times has admitted it “relied too heavily on claims by Hamas.”
In the aftermath of the NYT’s initial coverage hundreds of thousands worldwide took to the streets chanting “death to Israel”. This circumstance begs the ever-present question: who are we to believe. And when? Does the virtual world with its first mover advantage and legal shield enlarge the risk? In a capitalistic economy that values political freedom each day’s decisions pivot on who or what we should believe. The better we are at those conclusions the better our nation.
Most of today’s information hubs simply pass along what they think will attract attention and retain users. Since most don’t charge a fee for use, their business model is built around selling ads and a variety of side hustles. And many of the social media sites are little more than links to another site.
It is of course easy to say “buyer beware” and indeed we should. We don’t want to pay for bad food or a car with defects or a vacation that doesn’t live up to the visuals and so most do their research.
Yet when it comes to who we believe or elect, research is compromised by this rather simple declaration on the responsibility of Internet publishers: “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”. 47 U.S.C. Section 230© (1).
In short, since the publisher is not the publisher there is little responsibility. The NYT knew it was responsible. Its masthead said “All the news that is fit to print”. It ultimately corrected its initial coverage and took a hit on its credibility.
But consider, it has been speculated that up to 90% of all videos on the Internet are fake and that many are concocted by our enemies. I have no idea whether that percentage is correct but my background tells me that is in the ballpark. While some are paid to report the news, millions worldwide earn their living distorting it. US economic and security power make US citizens a target, if not the target. And, gone are the days when at least hours separated thought and publication.
So, what do we do? If a provider of Internet services is to escape the responsibilities of a “publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” they should have a concurrent duty. They should be required to set up a filtering or editorial system that can help them make a considered decision not just one to build a click inventory for sale.
The law should provide a “best practices” protection. Screening for manipulative practices will never be perfect but there should be a framework to block domestic and international predators searching for carrion.
Russian, Chinese and North Korean propogandists are clever; it is not always possible to detect their content manipulations. And, of course, those and other attacks on truth will be constantly changing. Should Internet publishers have no responsibility for policing their site? When publishers see no evil, they are merely useful idiots.
Now there will be an outcry. It will be said that this will suppress speech and that more speech can reveal lies. It will also be said that this legal change will work to the advantage of the large sites as they can afford this protective step while the little guys cannot.
But, come on, we live in a world where artificial intelligence (AI) is being used to accomplish tasks that used to require scores of workers doing intricate research. The world has moved. Protective algorithmic schemes are just as possible as the exploitative ones. Publishers should now be required to be what they are, publishers not merely repeaters. Feeding the credulous and excitable lies should not be protected.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.