Authorities must move to clean up social media

Why some people are moved to exploit, scare, or harm others is a mystery to me, but they clearly have existed at all times and in all cultures.

After reading Cao Xinyu’s “A hotbed of disinformation” (August 7, Shanghai Daily), I was saddened, but not really surprised, to see that ill-meaning trolls have invaded China’s online space, too. Why some people are moved to exploit, scare, or harm others is a mystery to me, but they clearly have existed at all times and in all cultures.

Just last week, some of the Internet giants in the United States, including Apple and YouTube, booted some more people off their sites, the most prominent of whom was Alex Joans, a prolific generator of far right conspiracy theories.

As but one example of his nefarious work: Several years ago, after another of the mass shootings that have become so common in the United States (this one involving the massacre of young students), he wrote on his site that this was just a “conspiracy” by the anti-gun forces and that, in fact, it did not occur; no one died, and the students “pretending” to do so were actors!

As you would expect, the parents who had lost children in that shooting were horrified and deeply hurt. What kind of person would do such a vicious thing to people already in deep mourning?

Cao had some useful suggestions towards the end of her story:

• Big tech companies should be held responsible for rumors they “unwittingly” host, so that it would be in their best interests to check and verify carefully before publishing.

• Relevant authorities, too, need to tighten supervision over platforms like WeChat and their operators to make sure the so-called tech companies are constantly reminded of their social responsibilities.

• And for individuals, perhaps the best advice is to take any sensational allegations with a grain of salt.

Sensible, and advice that should be heeded in the US, too!

Facebook and other large platforms have long allowed poseurs who claim to be people or actual legitimate organizations when, in fact, they are nefarious creations intent upon misinformation, at the least, and, at the worst, sowing and spreading the kind of rumors designed to ruin people’s reputations or further “gin up” fear and/or rage at vulnerable groups. I also believe the US must look closely at how we interpret the First Amendment protections that allow for unregulated “free speech.”

The American Founders added that amendment to the US Constitution because they thought it vital to allow for the expression of opinions that, however unpopular at the time, could contribute to the sound governance of the country. But I think it is naive in our time to allow those who deliberately sow misinformation or express harmful, threatening speech to stretch that amendment’s protected cover over them. The US Supreme Court many years ago ruled that it was unlawful — and not “free speech” covered by the Constitution — to falsely shout “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre because of the resulting harm that would likely follow in a panicky response.

Why, then, do we allow people to disseminate ideas — including holding rallies — that are intentionally designed to incite hatred towards entire populations, whether these be ethnic, religious, or racial communities?

The relevant authorities must do their job; the sewer will not clean itself!

Recently in Portland we had Right-wing outsiders from all over the country come to this city deliberately hoping to provoke an angry response from this strongly liberal community.

It was only through a pronounced police presence that a large riot did not break out.

Years ago, I learned a childhood chant that, even then, I knew was false.

Its sing-song verse was: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

That was untrue then, and it is even more false today. Just as mature adults must govern themselves regarding what they say or write, so also must mature societies have the courage to keep those things that harm the body politic — by attacking elements of the community — from wider distribution.

Even a child can tell the difference between someone urging a change in government from another shouting “Burn down the White House!”

The author is a retired US statesman.

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