Lies are destructive to democracy.
In the short time Donald Trump has been president, he and his aides have made a deliberate attack on fact, truth and honesty. The distortions and outright lies have been legion, and they are challenging the foundations of our democracy. “A lie would have no sense unless the truth were felt dangerous,” Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler said. And he is right.
Shortly after taking the oath of office, Trump claimed he had won the popular vote. Not true, because Secretary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes. On Feb. 12, 2017, senior White House policy advisor Stephen Miller claimed on television news shows that “the president is absolutely correct” in that claim, but declined to offer any evidence. Other Trump aides made excuses for him, the most outrageous by Kellyanne Conway, who said he had “alternative facts.” She even said journalists who criticized Trump should be fired.
Why didn’t I think of “alternative facts” in high school when I was marked down on a math problem?
Soon after that disaster the president claimed voter fraud, a charge refuted by evidence from even his own lawyers, and Sean Spicer, Trump’s press spokesman, responded that Trump “believes what he believes.” Since these two incidents occurred in the first week of the new presidency, we have to wonder of what importance the numbers of people attending the inauguration and Trump’s false claim of voter fraud are to the real issues facing this nation and the world. Can we trust him with serious national and international problems? Today we have leaders around the world asking what on earth is going on, what is happening to the leader of the free world?
The issue of the popular vote that Trump claimed he won is minor compared with false information his administration is now putting out about the “threats” to America from abroad, which he says are from Muslims. Claiming we are under threat of attack is a device used many times in history to frighten the public into supporting a plan to control people through a dictatorial method that includes curbs on speech, press and public opposition. Dictators throughout history have always demonized their “enemies.” Adolph Hitler demonized Jews and Slavs, and other dictators have adopted the same tactic: silence the opposition.
Consider this incident: Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said on the House floor regarding what he described as the unfair way the national media was covering President Trump. “Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.” To which Rick Casey, who hosts a weekly public affairs program on PBS called “Texas Week,” responded: “We’ve never really tried getting all our news from our top elected official. It has been tried elsewhere, however. North Korea comes to mind.”
One question raised recently concerns the meaning of the First Amendment’s free press and speech provisions. The First Amendment does not address truth or falsity — simply the right of the people to say what they wish. Hence, lies and distortion of information is not forbidden under the law.
Libel, however, is a legal area for suing someone for lying that possibly damages someone’s reputation. In short, a public person — meaning anyone who engages in public discussion on public issues — can sue for libel provided he or she can prove “actual malice,” meaning reckless disregard for the truth. The doctrine began in 1964 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. Since that time, the Supreme Court has extended the meaning of the doctrine in a number of cases regarding libel.
The Court accepted the idea that in public discussion, falsehoods could be addressed with more public discussion and anyone who engaged in such discussion had a right to speak and respond. Libel cases now are rare because they are very hard to win. In addition, government control of speech would be exceptionally difficult to impose because the internet is just about impossible to control and millions of words flow each minute, with much coming from outside the United States where law suits are nearly impossible to file. Example: Russian Internet interference in the election.
Presidential press conferences and other opportunities for the press to question public officials are largely traditional and not based in law. Trump attacks news organizations and individual members of the press, and, in fact, will not take questions from reporters he doesn’t like. When meeting with the prime minister of Japan, he called on reporters only from Fox News and similar organizations that support him. No other president in recent history has resorted to such a cowardly tactic.
The press today has less influence than a few decades ago owing largely to one thing: Social Media that gives anyone the opportunity to publish anything without challenge to credibility. And that process has created a new format: Fake News.
Eric Tucker in Austin, Texas claimed that paid protesters were bused to demonstrations against Trump. And Trump picked up the message and promoted it. His story was shared at least 350,000 times on Facebook. But the story was absolutely untrue. Likewise, people around the world and in the United States have created false news knowing that if they get enough “hits,” meaning people opening their site, they can make money by attracting advertising.
So today, thanks to instant access to a world audience on the internet, fake news is easily found and easily spread. What this says about our campaigns today compared with past decades is that anyone can put out lies to millions of people and have no one challenge them — no professional reporters, no editors, no responsible publishers.
Then we have the “Bowling Green Massacre,” a total falsehood put forward by Ms. Conway to support Trump’s travel ban. She claimed that a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Ky., killed a number of people. No such thing happened, and people in Bowling Green responded by putting up a brass plaque dedicated to those killed — a blank plaque. For such a story in the traditional press, a professional reporter would have checked with the police in Bowling Green to get details, and an editor would have checked the authenticity of the story before sending it out. But not Ms. Conway. She spoke on a TV show and her comments were false. Blatantly false.
Recently 20th Century Fox apologized for creating fake news for its film, “A Cure for Wellness.” Ads for the film used fake newspaper names that sounded real, such as the “Houston Leader.” Then some Facebook readers passed on the comments — which were false — to thousands of other people who apparently accepted the stories as true. Susan Credle, of the ad agency FCB, sharply commented, “Fake news is not a cute or silly subject. When you start to tear down media and question what’s real and what’s not real, our democracy is threatened.”
And now we are faced with the social media question: what is reliable and what is nonsense? How do we know which information has validity and which is garbage? At this time, we can hope that readers will examine information for credibility — who produced it and whether the source is responsible and reliable and, if biased, identified as such. Perhaps more online organizations will watch for and challenge false and distorted information. And it is up to us as citizens to aggressively challenge fake news and outright lies.
And I challenge all readers, should they be stopped for speeding, to tell the officer in Sean Spicer’s style, “I believed what I believed about my speed.”
Lyle Harris Sr., a former reporter in Washington, D.C., is a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University.