As we all know (well, maybe not all of us), the world is full of disinformation, or as former Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway famously proclaimed, “alternative facts.” Anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and a former President who claims that an election was stolen from him, who, despite his four indictments, has a good shot to again be elected as the Leader of the Free World not in spite of his lies, but because of them.
Many say “there oughta be a law.” But, in fact, there is the opposite of a law mandating truthfulness. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled, in the case of United States v. Xavier Alvarez, that the First Amendment prohibited the government from making it a crime to falsely claim to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor, thereby enshrining the right to lie within the sphere of our cherished Constitutional protections. Some legal scholars claim that the Alvarez precedent is broad enough to protect lies in political speech over the right of the voters to receive truthful information.
There was a time when our access to information was limited to a few media outlets such as the major television and radio networks and news publications that, while not perfect, at least had an infrastructure of accuracy checks that established a minimum guarantee of “truthiness,” in the fractured language of former President George W. Bush. But such outlets mostly acted in lockstep in reporting major events, frequently duped by the government’s own system of spreading misinformation, notably in the proliferation of the notion that we were winning the Viet Nam war for the better part of a decade.
But at least there was a system to support a reasonable belief in the truth of most reporting. And such a system was buttressed by the landmark ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan that news sources could only be sucessfully sued for libel by public figures if the publication acted knowing that the information was false or with reckless disregard of whether or not it was true. This ruling allowed news outlets to investigate and publish bold articles about those in power without fear of facing lawsuits every day. Now even this precedent is under attack by the likes of Justice Clarence Thomas who doesn’t much like the constant pillorying he faces from the (apparently true) reports of his injudicious and unethical conduct that have revealed his venal proclivities.
However, as imperfect as the Sullivan standard may be, there is virtually no mechanism that protects us from the untruths we see every day on social media. Many of the major social media apps have almost given up in trying to remove falsehoods from its sites following the lead of X (formerly Twitter) and its new owner Elon Musk, who is doing his best to preserve the right to lie under the guise of preserving the First Amendment right of free speech. And the courts have mostly gone along, as the Biden Administration has been prohibited from trying to prevent the publication of misinformation about Covid and its vaccines as its actions were interpreted as trying to “censor legitimate political speech.”
Like Diogenes, we are left futilely “searching for an honest man.” In a particularly distressing case, a Harvard professor who specializes in studying dishonesty and unethical behavior has been accused of falsifying the data in her well-known published papers on the subject. Where does it leave us if we cannot even trust the experts who study why people lie?
In the old days, maybe a generation or two ago, only the lies of famous people were notable. Who doesn’t know who spoke the words, “I am not a crook;” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman;” “Read my lips, no new taxes?” Now, with social media out of control, virtually everyone can be an equal opportunity liar. Perhaps we are living in the most egalitarian era in history. Take my word for it.