Guest editorial: All the news that isn’t fit to print; a destructive digital revolution

Journalism in our time has generally lived up to some high standards and a strict code of ethics. Glenn Geenwald, Anna Politkovskaya and Jamal Khashoggi are just some of the reporters whose names history will remember as heroes.

They, together with hundreds of others, have dedicated their lives to learning and reporting the truth — the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Some gave their lives.

These journalists have been the lifeblood of democracy, freedom and the rule of law and they have been tyranny’s worst enemy. It is little wonder that dictators or would-be dictators want so many of them in jail or murdered.

But we here in the United States have taken the quality of journalism in this country for granted for far too long. We will be diminished if we don’t come to grips with the damage being wreaked on journalism and truthful reporting by the so-called “digital revolution.”

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Youtube, Reddit, social media and the digital revolution are changing how we deliver information in ways that were once unimaginable. And with all of that, standards of professionalism and ethics are fast eroding.

What was once a tool of democratic uprisings like the Arab Spring is fast becoming a more powerful tool of corporate surveillance, cyberwarfare, national intelligence agencies and what Donald Trump ironically calls “fake news.” The truth has always been hard to come by, but today it is getting harder than ever.

The recent revelations regarding Facebook’s algorithms and efforts to stoke the fires of conflict in order to generate “clicks” is disturbing enough. Over the past decade and a half, with billions lost in advertising revenue, over 2,000 local news outlets have shuttered. The watchdogs that kept our school boards and select boards accountable are disappearing and the fabric of the community is being frayed.

As harmful as that is, there are other harms even more tragic. On Instagram, Reddit and now literally hundreds of other sites, rumor and false, anonymous and malicious accusations can spread like wildfire.

As a lawyer, I am familiar with the case of a man left with almost no recourse after being falsely and anonymously accused of rape on Instagram. I am aware of a social worker being falsely and anonymously called a sexual predator on Reddit, again without recourse. Not surprisingly, suicide rates among teenagers, our most vulnerable and fragile citizens, have seen a dramatic increase since social media has become such a large part of their everyday life.

In his book “Anatomy of a Revolution,” Crane Brinton wrote about the patterns of revolution. The French Revolution led to a “Reign of Terror.” The Russian Revolution was followed by Stalin’s purges and show trials. The German Revolution gave birth to Nazism.

The “digital revolution” is following a similar pattern. It is becoming dangerously destructive. And like Robespierre, Stalin and Hitler, it has become so powerful that few dare challenge its most powerful corporations.

Facebook and Instagram cannot claim the free-speech rights of the public square and all the autonomy of a private business. If they are going to exercise monopoly-like powers in the communications industry, then they should be regulated like every other utility. Our elected representatives have got to find the courage and wisdom to rein in the excesses of this revolution.

They should recognize that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court needs public advocates. If social media is going to spread anonymous libel, then social media should be held accountable for the lies. And it is long past time for our elected representatives and the Federal Trade Commission to begin serious scrutiny of the behavior of Google, Facebook and Microsoft in light of our antitrust and fair trade laws.

Our schools need to teach media literacy and media responsibility. And we should all nurture a deeper appreciation for those local newspapers that manage to survive the revolution.

There are no Edward R. Murrows or Walter Cronkites on Twitter or Instagram. Woodward and Bernstein aren’t going to work for Mark Zuckerberg. Fortunately, Frances Haugen did. We need a lot more heroes like her if this revolution is going to end well.

David Kelley is a lawyer who is a member of the Greensboro Selectboard.

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