America Has the Press and Social Media We Deserve | Opinion

A free country needs a free press. We have one. Social media is an important part of it.

A free country needs a responsible press. Opinion is split as to whether or not we have one; but if we do, social media isn't part of it.

A free country needs a trustworthy press. We don't even come close.

The prevailing situation is unsustainable. All freedom rests upon responsibility and trust. The Bill of Rights enshrines free speech and a free press as more than basic human rights; it codified them as twin pillars of a free society. The theory is simple: Truth will ring louder than lies, good opinions will defeat bad and dangerous beliefs will be dispelled faster in public than if they are kept secret.

But that's just the theory. It's easy to cite counterexamples from the past where lies, bad ideas and dangerous beliefs won the day. Peer pressure, societal norms, powerful voices and seductive advertisements can convince almost anyone to believe almost anything. Freedom of speech and of the press can only benefit society if a critical mass of speakers—and a critical volume of voices—wield their freedom responsibly. If society motivates its members to seek and value truth, truth will prevail. If not, truth will fade into an afterthought.

President Trump's new Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship (EO) is a serious and important attempt to focus America on a sobering reality: We lack the responsible and trustworthy press we need to preserve our freedom. Though the EO addresses social media, the problem runs far deeper. The incentives shaping today's American press reward manipulation and propaganda rather than responsibility and integrity.

We've got the press we've chosen to motivate—and it's killing us.

The EO focuses on the particularly dismal set of incentives found in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. According to the CDA: "The Internet and other interactive computer services offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse.... It is the policy of the United encourage the development of technologies which maximize user control over what information is received."

Working towards that policy, the CDA exempted providers of "interactive computer services" from liability for restricting the availability of "material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable." The courts interpreted (likely misinterpreted) that exemption as broadly as imaginable. The "otherwise objectionable" clause became a catch-all, enabling Internet companies to escape any and all liability for anything posted on their sites.

The CDA's motivation was far narrower. It was indeed about decency. Early Internet sites permitted any user to post anything. When some conscientious sites began removing pornography, they found themselves facing defamation suits. The theory was that anyone capable of pulling pornography is subject to liability as an editor or publisher. Section 230 arose to let people remove harmful material without assuming a publisher's liability.

Good intentions aside, the CDA ensured that Internet companies have no incentive to curate postings responsibly. To the contrary, their incentive is to cater to their own tastes, whims and preferences. It's hard to underestimate the danger of motivating giants like Twitter, Facebook and Google to filter information to suit the personal, political or monetary interests of whoever gets to do the filtering.

Smartphone with social media companies
Smartphone with social media companies OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

The CDA exemption built upon an incentive system that was already pointing in a dangerous direction. In the landmark 1964 case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court ruled that to win a defamation suit, a public figure must prove that a media outlet acted with "actual malice—that is, with knowledge that [the reported material] was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." While this unshackling of the press has had many positive effects, it does not work in the service of truth. A member of the press who hears a nasty rumor about a public figure has an incentive to be the first to report it—not to investigate its truth.

We thus have the press and the social media we deserve. First we told the press to exert only enough effort verifying facts to avoid being found provably reckless. Then we told the social media giants they didn't even have to do that. Every incentive we've handed them has motivated them to shape public discourse to suit their own tastes. Well, surprise! That's precisely what they've done.

President Trump's new EO is a wakeup call. It tinkers at the edges of the incentive system, but it can't really get to the heart of the matter. That task falls to Congress and the courts. At the end of the day, though, if America wants the responsible, trustworthy press it needs to remain a vibrant free society, it will have to get the incentive structures right. Until then, don't be surprised to learn that truth has very little value to America's free press.

Bruce Abramson, Ph.D. J.D., is a principal at B2 Strategic, senior fellow and director at ACEK Fund and the author of American Restoration: Winning America's Second Civil War.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.