BIDLACK | There are lies, damned lies — and social media

Author: Hal Bidlack - October 30, 2018 - Updated: October 30, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

Every so often, I’m asked how I go about writing these columns twice a week. My usual process is to sit at my computer with my copy of the Colorado Springs Gazette from that morning, with the ColoradoPolitics.com website open on my monitor, a can of Coke Zero by my side. I look for something that either inspires or irritates me, and then I think about how I can write something that is interesting enough to get past my long-suffering editor, Dan.

The story that got my attention today was a Gazette story, first published in the Washington Post, that examined the challenges false narratives (lies, to put it more clearly) impact businesses negatively, especially those that pop up on social media. And given the horrific news of the past week or so, it is not surprising at all that false narratives – lies – are hurting businesses as well as our society at large. Readers may recall the story from 2016 that reported on a fake news story (cough… lie…cough) that was going around asserting that Hillary Clinton was secretly running a child sex ring from the basement of a pizza restaurant. Now, even the most Hillary-hating people likely disregarded that story, but at least one person, reportedly fired up by a report on a popular conspiracy website, decided to rescue the kids from the basement. The problem was, of course, the story was nonsense, and the restaurant in question didn’t even have a basement. But that did not stop one man from showing up with an AR-15, a hand gun and a knife, and marching past the kids playing ping-pong and shooting off the lock of what he assumed was the entrance to the sex ring but was actually the supply closet.

My own social media feed, where I myself almost never post political stuff, has been filled this week with comments from Colorado friends as well as others across the nation repeating lies, or false narratives if you prefer, about the group of migrants walking toward the US. They posted pictures that claimed to be of this march of horrible people, which were often pictures of long-ago events, and posited that George Soros was paying for these evildoers. Now, common sense would suggest that having a march that our President can talk about in his usual xenophobic terms would actually help the GOP, not the Dems, but common sense is not widely available on Facebook.

Facebook, twitter, and Google, to name only three, are really big companies with really big impacts. So, what are they to do about the problem of lies on their platforms? Remember please that First Amendment conflicts are both inevitable and desirable – we want an energetic discussion of values. But what should these businesses do when, say, the son of the disgraced and guilty-pleading former National Security Advisor to President Trump tells his 98,000 followers that the bombs mailed to numerous Democrats were just a “political stunt?” Remember when attempted political assassination was condemned, not rationalized?

Our Founding Fathers believed that an informed electorate was vital to democracy. And while there were certainly wildly partisan folks during our entire history as a nation, in general, we tended to agree on what facts were facts and we argued about policies. Now, unfortunately, lies have become “false narratives” and truth to far too many has become whatever the President tweeted. Recently, more than one of my GOP friends has reposted an item on Facebook that asserts “Were any of you aware that ALL the Democrats voted AGAINST the 2.8 percent Social Security cost of living increase?” Outrageous to be sure! Only one problem – it’s completely false. Since 1975, increases in the cost of living for Social Security have been automatic and tied to the consumer price index. In short, no Dem orRepublican voted for or against the increase, because it never came before Congress.

So, should Facebook remove the false posts, as they are trying to do with fake Russian accounts? Or is the ability to lie a protected right? As is always the case, I have no answers, only more questions, and a deep sadness about the level of political discourse in our nation. I had thought that Colorado was better than most other states, but then I watched a couple of ads and felt worse. The election is a week from today. I hope we can return to a bit more civility and honesty in the days that follow, but I’m not counting on it, but maybe that’s just my own false narrative?

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.