Kathleen Stoll: Ability to Note the Truth from the Waning Straw (Opinion) | Opinion comments
Grocery store tabloids tout sensational headlines that invariably involve at least several exclamation marks. I think of the Globe and the National Enquirer and the National Examiner and the Sun and, of course, my favorite, the Weekly World News.
I don’t want to condemn these tabloids. I’ve been known to pick one up and laugh while waiting in the queue while someone pulls coupons out of their purse.
Who could resist the classic Weekly World News tabloid of June 1993 with these headlines: “Space Creature Survived UFO Crash in Arkansas!” “Hillary Clinton adopts alien baby (official photo!)” “Secret Service Building Special Nursery in White House! “
I must admit that I bought this number. Those headlines were just too rich not to be shared with a team of people working on Clinton’s first attempt at healthcare reform.
By 1993, most people understood the utter absurdity of claiming an alien baby. Sure, a few people took these headlines seriously, but certainly not huge swathes of Americans.
Headlines like this haven’t sparked a discussion in Washington about tabloid censorship. If that had been mentioned, most politicians would have agreed that Americans just aren’t fooled that easily.
As a longtime member of the American Civil Liberties Union, I would have opposed efforts to censor the content of any newspaper, even tabloids, in 1993. Any kind of censorship is a slippery slope that can lead to more and more contempt for freedom of expression. Rather than censorship, I trusted the intelligence of my fellow Americans.
Today, I reassess my absolute position. The advent of social media platforms allows for the perpetuation of headlines and “stories” that can come from any unidentified source. Any social media post, often presented as expert opinion, can be repeated millions of times around the world. The truth becomes whatever is what you want to believe because you can find someone on the internet who will validate you. Repetition rather than research defines reality.
While I remain committed to a strong First Amendment, I am also an advocate working to advance public health.
I worry about the perpetuation of inaccurate or outright false information about health care on the Internet that compromises the collective health and safety of our families. A lot of this bogus news gets spread for the same reason the tabloids have crazy headlines – it gets attention, gets more readers, and makes money.
I am no longer convinced that Americans can tell the difference between a tabloid-type story and factual information on the Internet. I see information being deliberately manipulated to serve politics, not public health.
I’m convinced the delta variant – the latest contagious mutation in COVID-19 – has had time to develop because social media has either scared people of the vaccine or politicized wearing a mask or getting the shot. (the Liberals do it and the Conservatives don’t).
Apparently others share my concerns. A poll conducted in late July by Morning Consult found that more than three in five adults would support a bill making internet platforms responsible for the spread of health misinformation during a public health crisis.
So it’s no surprise that Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Has introduced legislation to make social media platforms responsible for the spread of bogus or misleading health content during any public health emergency declared by the Secretary of Health and Social Services. The secretary is reportedly assembling a group of impartial medical experts to define what constitutes health misinformation.
At this point in history, our nation can let false information ferment freely and endanger collective public health, or we can make tech companies self-regulate and remove false messages as they see fit. Or we can create a government entity guided by a group of experts to oversee health information on the internet.
Times are different from what they were 28 years ago. Today I think the First Amendment must be balanced with the need to protect public health. It’s time for Congress to consider the best way to fairly regulate fake health information posted on social media.
I urge the West Virginia congressional delegation to carefully consider this issue and Klobuchar’s bill.
Kathleen Stoll is Policy Director for West Virginia for Affordable Health Care (wvahc.org) and operates a political and economic consulting firm, Kat Consulting.