Banning lies, tolerating poppycock

Are social media giants finally recognizing their moral responsibilities?

Lots of this is tossed around nowadays. How tolerant should we be? (Photo by tubblesnap on

Since my high school class had one of those landmark reunions recently, we’ve been seeing more of each other on social media. It’s not always satisfying. Just the other day, for instance, a classmate reported that on a road trip he and his wife had taken through 13 states, they hadn’t seen any evidence of the Delta variant of Covid-19 — leading him to decide that the hullabaloo about the coronavirus must be a media-induced fraud.

“What we experienced were open buffets like in the pre-Covid days, few if any masks, no one coughing up their lungs, sneezing or collapsing in the hotels or on the sidewalks in the towns or tourist areas we visited,” he wrote. So, he concluded, the current crisis was mostly about “bogus mainstream media reports” that he characterized as “horsepucky and poppycock,” which were intended “to force us to kowtow to whatever new restrictions they deem necessary for… their dominance and control of our freedoms.”

After some decades working in the mainstream media since I last saw that fellow, I could have taken offense at what he wrote, but mostly I was perplexed about which of his freedoms I might now control via horsepucky. Still, I weighed gently suggesting that a buffet line or a hotel lobby aren’t really the places that a good reporter would seek out information on a pandemic. You know, he might have stumbled across some evidence of the Delta variant’s awful impact by instead visiting, say, a hospital ICU, or maybe a mortuary. Thank God his nice trip didn’t lead to either of those places.

But I’ve learned that engaging inanity on social media is a fool’s errand. Generally, you cannot convince someone to abandon an opinion they have settled upon by offering facts or even reason. Psychologists blame something they call confirmation bias — our tendency to embrace information that confirms our beliefs and reject anything that contradicts what we think we already know.1 My high school friend believes that the Delta variant isn’t a threat, and he’s not going to be persuaded otherwise — certainly not by the poppycock in mainstream media about 150,000 new cases in this country every day, and 2,000 deaths.2

Yet in the face of misinformation that kills people — and, make no mistake, it’s deadly to shrug off the threat of the coronavirus and to attempt to undermine the medical community’s pleas to get vaccinated — it is irresponsible to turn away. That’s why You Tube did the right thing this week in banning anti-vaccine activists and blocking false messages claiming that vaccines are dangerous. Facebook and Twitter have their own fights against vaccine misinformation, too, though a lot of dubious and dangerous blather still gets through on each platform.

The You Tube action drew the expected rebukes, and the claim that it was censorship, from politicians who have been favorites of the anti-vaccine, anti-mask crowd — like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, where the coronavirus case count has been among the nation’s highest in recent weeks — and among their media enablers, notably at Fox News.3 But “censorship” is a term that applies when government limits free speech, not when a private company chooses not to publish something. What social media sites are doing, belatedly, is what responsible media have always done. We have called it “editing.”

The social media giants got as big as they are now — 2.89 billion monthly users on Facebook, and 2 billion on You Tube — in part by making their platforms open to virtually anything and anybody, insisting all along that they weren’t publishers because they didn’t determine what should or shouldn’t be published. We have mostly loved the results: photos from our friends’ family celebrations and vacations, shots of fine dinners and fun events, silly videos of dogs doing tricks. We like being connected to people we might otherwise have lost track of.

We’re less enthusiastic, though, about the political content on social media, especially when it conflicts with our own views. So the platforms have conveniently fashioned algorithms to serve us content that matches what we’ve liked in the past. In that, Facebook is reinforcing our confirmation bias, day after day. It is making us more closed-minded by leading us to infer that most folks agree with our point of view.

And just as we crane our necks to see an accident we pass along the highway, we can’t resist the less benign stuff online that confirms our quiet anger. The algorithms that drive social media engagement tend to push forward controversial and extreme points of view — and, since ugly material gets more attention, it quite conveniently yields more revenue for the platforms. In serving up content to reinforce users’ existing views, the platforms are making their founders and investors rich even as they shape a more polarized society, one where anger seems always to be just a hair’s breadth away.

That’s not how it has worked over recent decades in the mainstream media, my old classmate’s target. However inelegantly my newspaper colleagues and I have sometimes performed, there’s a sense of responsibility among serious journalists that we must try to present what’s true, not just what enflames. Those with a platform — a printing press, a broadcast tower, a web site — perceive their work as ethical only if they use that platform thoughtfully and carefully. It’s a sensibility that the social media giants ignored until recently.

This week marked a watershed in that shift. Now some of the greatest deniers of the viability of common vaccines — people like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longtime anti-vaxxer despite the pleas of his family, and Joseph Mercola, an alternative medicine entrepreneur — will be blocked from posting on You Tube. They’re among the group known by the Center for Countering Digital Hate as the “Disinformation Dozen,” so labeled because roughly two-thirds of the anti-vax material on Facebook and Twitter has been traced to just 12 people.4

But now that social media platforms have begun to grapple with their responsibility to seek the truth before allowing publication, there’s a question of how far they will go. Blatant lying has become endemic in politics, after all, and it’s not just Donald Trump who engages in it. So will social media crack down on others?

Take, for example, Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, who supports Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the presidential election was stolen. McCarthy claims that in raising the debt ceiling two years ago, Congress covered everything spent during the Trump administration, plus the first seven months of the Biden administration. That’s not true.5 Or consider Mike Pompeo, who was Trump’s secretary of state and is champing at the bit for a presidential race himself. He claims that during the Obama administration the United States transported $150 billion in “pallets of cash” to Iran. That’s also false.6

But ban them from the platforms? I don’t hear anybody involved in the decision-making advocating that, and for good reason: Unlike the anti-vaxxers, those guys aren’t pushing lies that are lethal. They’re just misleading people, which I am sorry to report, if you hadn’t noticed, is a time-honored political tactic.

As a longtime newspaper editor, I have a lot of experience corralling information that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, so here’s how I suggest handling this stuff: Publish it. And right alongside it, publish what’s true, and hold the liars to account every time they spout baloney.

Sure, tracking and correcting lies is immensely more difficult on a huge digital platform than it is at an individual newspaper and its website. But consider this: Facebook’s net income last year — the money it took to the bank — was more than $29 billion. 7Weigh that alongside the moral imperative to use your platform responsibly, and ask yourself this: If you were Facebook’s CEO, how much of that $29 billion would you be willing to spend to hire some more editors and producers, if that might reduce the misinformation and polarization that is ripping apart our society? What cost would you shoulder to try to help prevent America’s next civil war?

Facebook would still be profitable. We could still share photos from our vacations and our fine dinners, still cringe at the videos of silly dog tricks. We could even share our own controversial views — like this column, which a lot of people read on social media each week. I would still stumble across my old classmate’s insulting comments and burn a little. But I figure we all would welcome some voluntary steps from the social media giants that might reduce our daily diet of horsepucky and poppycock.


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Dispatches from our common ground *

Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.

This week, we share dispatches from:

  • Twin Falls, Idaho (Twin Falls Times-News,

  • Carlisle, Pa. (The Sentinel,

  • Tucson, Az. (Arizona Daily Star,

  • Gaston, S.C. (The Gaston Gazette,

NOTE: The complete “Viewed from Upstate” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!


Dangerous water quality linked to region’s greatest resource

In the first decade of the 20th century, the area of south central Idaho came to be known as the Magic Valley, after a series of irrigation projects on the Snake River “magically” transformed the arid region into one of the Northwestern United States’ most productive agricultural centers. But a new report from the Idaho Conservation League documents (as two prior reports did) dangerous levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the area’s groundwater, according to a report by Hannah Ashton in the Twin Falls Times-News. The pollution can be traced, the report says, to over-application of fertilizer, and to the 469,000 dairy cows in the Magic Valley — which, according to the report, “produce as much nitrate as waste produced by a city of 16 million people.”


Mail slowdown frustrates businesses

New postal delivery schedules that began Oct. 1 are likely to be noticed by everybody. It’s all part of a plan by Louis DeJoy, the postmaster general appointed by Donald Trump, to make the U.S. Postal Service pay for itself. But businesses in Carlisle, Pa. (incidentally, the second-best place in America to raise a family, Forbes concluded in 2010) have already been annoyed by the slowdowns. During August, one business leader told The Sentinel’s Zach Hoopes, "We were give or take a week without mail, through no fault of our long-time carrier." Another business owner called it “catastrophic.” Get ready, folks: The old three-day delivery standard for first-class mail now is five days, and four out of 10 pieces of first-class mail will be affected.


University workers demand more protection

More than1,000 colleges and universities across the country now require Covid-19 vaccinations, but state law in Arizona forbids it, according to reporting by Kathryn Palmer in the Arizona Daily Star. But that may change: a state judge has ruled the statute unconstitutional, and the state’s top court has refused to block the judge’s order while the state appeals. Even so, the University of Arizona president, who is a surgeon, has refused to require vaccinations without authorization from the state Board of Regents, which has prompted demonstrations by university employees demanding more protection from the coronavirus.


New high school trains healthcare workers

A new high school in Gaston aims to quickly train students for jobs in the high-demand field of healthcare, according to reporting by Gavin Stewart in the Gaston Gazette. The Gaston Early College of Medical Sciences will offer a five-year program that will give students both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in one of four medical fields. School officials say the new school is a direct response to the staffing needs of the county’s largest employer, CaroMont Health, which employs about 4,300 people.


ENDNOTE 10.02.21

We could all do pro bono work

Over the years, I’ve covered and worked with a lot of lawyers — and I’ve told my share of prickly lawyer jokes. Those learned in the law have always been easy targets. “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” Shakespeare has a character say in Henry VI, to a lot of approving muttering in audiences over the years.

But if there’s a profession outside ecclesiastical ordination that devotes more of its professional time to helping the community at no fee than lawyers do, I’m not aware of it. This is a timely moment to take note because, according to a notice I have just received, October is Pro Bono Month, when bar associations celebrate those lawyers who have volunteered their time to people without resources who need legal help. In my state of New York, more than 3,600 lawyers have given away free services in civil cases to more than 3,000 clients over the past five years. People need lawyers’ help with landlord-tenant disputes, uncertainty about property rights, small businesses that are targets of bigger competitors — and a lot more.

This is worth weighing by all of us. How might each of us similarly use our skills to benefit the community? Here’s an example: I have a friend who trained late in life as a chef specifically so he could provide help in a soup kitchen in poor urban neighborhoods. Might the rest of us find a similar path to using our expertise? If you have some examples of good work by your friends and neighbors, would you share them with me?

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Thanks for reading (special gratitude to the paying subscribers!), and thanks for joining me on our common ground* as I weigh in from Upstate America.

-Rex Smith


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