No one should consume news media

A matter of free speech and disinformation

On the surface, it would seem entirely intuitive to say that free speech is a human right, and it seems entirely inconceivable to deny anyone the right to speak their mind — and in a society of honest, morally constructive and altruistic people, or at least in a society of people who value the pursuit of truth above the acquisition of profit or the thrill of screwing with people for personal gain, that would indeed hold true.

But what about in a world where people would use the same right to freedom of speech in combination with a mask of expertise to convince people of a falsity, either for their own profit or purely for the sake of acquiring profit, regardless of whether people are harmed in the process? What about people who have become consumed by an irrational belief — should they have the right to speak freely, in spite of how easily the masses can become convinced of irrational beliefs when expressed or shared by an influential person?

Still, the answer is yes, because the reader should themselves be a rational and perceptive agent capable of seeing past deceptions and through any plot to convince them of a falsity.

But what about in a world like the one we just considered, but where readers are fallible? Where readers are not necessarily rational, or are at the very least capable of being deceived? Does the state, for want of a better word, not then have an obligation to restrict freedom of speech to topics that are safe? Or perhaps to place restrictions on who may speak rather than to try and prohibit the discussion of particular topics?

Until recently, I would have always maintained that it was a person's inalienable right to speak freely. Even crazy terrorist people talking about genocide against the western world, there's almost no point trying to stop that, it will still occur just in particular settings where it is forced into an echo chamber, no counterarguments are raised because it is only taking place underground beyond the eye of the state.

However, given numerous events over the past decade, perhaps reaching a peak with the coronavirus, I've seen dozens of individuals masquerading as experts recommending fake cures and suggesting chemicals as medicines that not only provide no benefit to fighting the infection, but may cause even lethal bodily harm to the person taking them. Not only insane and irresponsible political figures, but also many fake doctors/medical professionals spouting nonsense. And then you have news outlets who are no better, giving media exposure to the same snake oils and bullshit, saying the virus isn't dangerous, saying it's more dangerous that it actually is, suggesting conspiracy theories, and so on. There is arguably even deception occurring at a state level from governments and political figures in their official communications to the public, based either on ignorance or a desire to placate through misinformation.

The primary motive is profit, but obviously some people are doing this just to hurt other people.

Were I in a position to stop these people from talking, using their right to free speech, I won't say that I wouldn't stop them. I wouldn't hesitate to stop silence them. So I feel like I no longer believe in freedom of speech. Even prior to the coronavirus, 'fake news' (which has always been around but was once mostly confined to tabloid journalism and to a certain selection of publications popular with conspiracy theorists) had seen a massive increase and, frankly, it's just a danger to society. People aren't infallible, rational agents who can see through every bit of bullshit they read, they can get taken in by it and that's ultimately very dangerous.

But start policing what people can say, and/or who is allowed to speak, and you're basically on a slippery slope down into a totalitarian regime. And who is to say that the people in charge are justified in filtering what can and cannot be said, they aren't bound by an oath to help others as doctors are when they swear the Hippocratic Oath, or people in court when they swear to tell the truth. An oath is easily broken if you don't believe in any consequences anyway. I'd happily swear on a book in court and lie. Doctors give out lethal doses of morphine when they believe it's the humane and morally right thing to do -- but they are technically not upholding their oath to preserve life.

Treat the cause, not the symptoms

I feel like in the past there were ... implicit rules about what the press would say. They had a duty to report the truth to their readers. There would be sensationalist headlines to promote the sale of their newspaper over someone else's newspaper but it would more or less focus on reporting actual events and better newspapers would seek to cite experts and facts to support their reporting. But two major factors have changed this:

1. The internet. As a platform of communication, the internet began innocently, and quicky became a space where people were free to say virtually anything because they were more or less anonymous, at least to other internet users, if they chose to conceal their identity behind a user name/persona and not disclose any genuine contact information.

This combined with the fact that not every internet user is going to have a set of morals to guide their conduct, or would seek to use the anonymity of the internet to let their immoral side out, gave rise to 'trolling', online bullying, and the posting of obscene and sadistic content, as well as the creation and perpetuation of things that are not true primarily for the purposes of humour — often just the humour of the person creating the deception and perhaps others who were in on the joke, either by affiliation or by virtue of seeing through the deception.

This culture has gradually spread to the real world as people have spent more and more time on the internet, become more exposed to the memes and historic occurrences on the internet, and so on. It has become normalised and informed how we interact in the real world. This is also much thanks to point number 2.

2. Social media has turned everyone into a journalist and the press has become polarised in order to stand out from the noise and appeal to the often quite mad voices that social media gives a megaphone to. Social media has also exposed the internet, which began as a nerdy hobbyist's platform for communication, to the public at large along with technological advances that enable everyone to have internet access in their pocket, through easily used apps and websites like Facebook.

Whilst the anonymity of the internet has more or less vanished except at a few niche communities and forums, there is still no real legal consequence for anyone misbehaving on it or on social media specifically unless it is a severe case of direct bullying or a case where a person has physically and/or mentally suffered as a direct cause of someone on the internet/social media.

So where stealing is a direct crime punishable by law, the deliberate spreading of false facts, fake news, and even trolling are basically unpunishable.

There are no consequences.

That is where I think the solution lies. That way people are free to speak, but there must be consequences for people who deceive, especially from positions of authority or expertise, or masquerading as though they have authority/expertise.

Because it's either than or there must be a reputation system like reddit... and it doesn't work for reddit at all!

That's a good point, it doesn't help that the people who read all the bullshit these days are themselves often possessed of a distorted worldview. All the uncles, aunts, grandparents who are basically nazis, it was all okay once upon a time and then we gave them the technology to speak their minds and find out how many people agreed with them!

Social media is a major issue indeed, it creates a massive surface for attack given that you're exposed to the entire world in a profile, rather than MSN Messenger (glory days) where you had to add friends for them to even know you exist online, rather than today where everyone has a dozen profiles and are more or less Google-able.

The problem with my solution is: who gets to decide what's right and wrong? True or false? Boris Johnson? at the same time, the fact that those who are in positions of authority aren't qualified to make ethical or moral judgements is brought to light by this discussion, but what should be scarier to everyone is that these people are in control of the country — but they are no more qualified to do so than anyone else.

You'd think scientists and economists would wield executive power, given that they would understand how to do things best, they could at least have a theory and some knowledge to back up that theory about how to run a country, how to recover an economic problem, etc. But instead they are just consultants who are usually ignored, as they have been regarding climate change etc.

When scientists and so on are just consulted and ignored, the playing field is more or less levelled for anyone to claim to be an expert because what's the difference in the public's eye? They're looking at politicians thinking they have a clue.

And then you need to trust those who enforce the laws to do so honestly, but if they agree with what Mr Nazi says about evicting all "Pakis" from the UK, could they be trusted to carry out a sentence against Mr Nazi? Or would it be a wrist slap.

But then if you decentralise the enforcement of the law on speaking truly and constructively to a reputation system, it is also easily abused. People can easily build a reputation and then use their reputation to pursue their own agenda if they're patient and willing to work hard to spout their bullshit.

Reputation system is only as good as those handing out comment karma/whatever reputation points anyway — are they good judges?

The public is only as good at judging as they can be with the information they have available and use to form their own beliefs and values. Look at Brexit -- while I don't necessarily oppose leaving the EU, I think remain would have won had the public not been misled by Boris and his friends, and if we were to have re-negotiated a deal that kept us in EU, those people leading the leave campaign would have only worsened our terms of being in the EU.

It's impossible to trust authority, but society works anyway, so I guess we would simply have to just start putting laws in place to deter people from speaking untruthfully in the press and in social media.

That's ultimately how the law actually prevents crime for 90% of people. It is not the actual consequence, but the fear of the consequence. Were people to be more resolute, and more aware of how little they would be impacted by the consequence of imprisonment, I think a good deal more crime would be perpetrated.

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