On Disinformation, Fake News, and the First Amendment
Many questions surrounding free speech, the First Amendment, and the role of disinformation have arisen since the storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on January 6th, 2021.
We spoke with Chet Lunner, national correspondent, press secretary, and intel officer who has a unique perspective on the role of fake news, the First Amendment, and our national government.
CHET LUNNER: Freedom of speech does not mean you can say anything at all ever about anyone with no consequences. That’s not what it’s about. You have that right but you also have the risk of suffering the consequences when you say something that’s disinformation.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: Hi, welcome to One on 1, I’m Christian Cotzat the First Amendment Museum here in Augusta, Maine. Today I’m joined by Chet Lunner, national correspondent, newspaper editor, press secretary, intel officer. He’s got a unique perspective on fake news, the First Amendment, and our national government.
Chet, it’s great to have you with us today.
CHET LUNNER: Thanks, Christian.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: I think the failure in communication started well before January 6th, do you agree?
CHET LUNNER: Absolutely. And certainly, there’s been people yelling at us from all directions but, really blown up and amplified by social media which has no restraints.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: Do you think we’re getting wrong information, misinformation, disinformation?
CHET LUNNER: I do. Misinformation is often just the normal kind of mistakes, that they’ll get some of the information wrong. But disinformation is deliberate, often covert attempts to essentially change the reality. Put out some alternative facts.
It’s the deliberately misleading information from any side is what’s really eating at our democracy
CHRISTIAN COTZ: What are the sources of that disinformation?
CHET LUNNER: We’ve maintained this real hard grip and like to yell out loud about our First Amendment rights. Along with that goes a responsibility.
Just the ability to grab onto a megaphone or use your thumbs on your phone to say whatever you want is not what the First Amendment is supposed to be about.
We usually talk about the federal First Amendment but the constitution of the State of Maine in Article 1 says that protects freedom of speech and publication as long as you are “responsible for the abuse of this liberty” And that’s the part of the equation that doesn’t get brought in here very often.
In recent events, you’ll see an unusual array of arrests and prosecutions for what happened as a result of disinformation but usually, you just have people yelling without consequences
CHRISTIAN COTZ: Is the promulgation of disinformation protected by the First Amendment?
CHET LUNNER: I suspect that the vast majority of it is.
There’s no prohibition against you lying but if you lie about me, there is a mechanism for me to sue you and get some other sorts of punishment as a result of your abusing that right.
Now the platforms itself, the Facebooks and the Twitters, since 1996 have been totally protected against anything anyone else put on their platform.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: Is that the Section 230?
CHET LUNNER: Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Act.
That’s when the internet, where social media, was just sort of getting started. They saw themselves as community blackboard. Members of the community want to post something on the blackboard, that’s fine, but we shouldn’t be held responsible.
And Congress, in the excitement about standing up the internet and getting things going, put in that protection for the Zuckerbergs and the Twitters of the world.
Now there’s a lot of talk, and I would not be surprised at all if that’s removed because it’s led to this abuse and disinformation.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: Is this a new problem?
CHET LUNNER: It’s not a new problem, it’s a new platform.
Back when the founders were writing the US Constitution they were quite familiar with broadsides that were just horrendous.
Around the time of the Civil War there would have been 30 daily newspapers in New York City. None of them trying to do an objective job the way we expect today’s media to act.
If you read one of those nasty articles in a newspaper, it was just you reading it in the newspaper.
Now the social media algorithms make the worst disinformation the most popular because they push it up the visibility ladder based on how many people are reading it.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: We talked earlier about how disinformation likely played into the events that transpired last week with the storming of the Capitol. Can you give us an example from your career when disinformation was really the culprit behind a dangerous situation?
CHET LUNNER: I was at the launchpad when Challenger went up.
Immediately there were some rumors that, “Oh, it must be a Russian sabotage.” Over a period of days and weeks there was rumor after rumor after rumor. Our job was to sift the rumors, get the facts out of the chaff and tell a story that was true and verifiable.
These days those rumors would hit your smartphone one after another with no chance to knock them down and do the damage before anybody can actually react to them.
So the system of reporters and editors and a time period before the publication to look at it and verify things has been damaged. That’s not how social media works.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: If you had two or three tips for people today on how to be better internet users and consumers what would you recommend?
CHET LUNNER: Start with a question: says who?
Who said that? What’s their history? What can I verify, what can’t I verify?
If you just ask some pretty basic questions and remember to apply those across the board to whatever you’re hearing.
There are also websites. They do the screening for you. You can see whether the source is questionable or not. There’s an app for that.
CHRISTIAN COTZ: Thanks so much for joining us Chet.
Everybody, thanks for tuning in. Stay tuned for more One on 1.