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Super-enablers Facebook, Twitter should be held accountable

By Robert B. Reich, Tribune Content Agency on

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook says he'll run political ads even if they are false. Jack Dorsey of Twitter says he'll stop running political ads altogether.

Dorsey has the correct approach, but the debate skirts the bigger question: Who is responsible for protecting democracy from big, dangerous lies?

Donald Trump lies like most people breathe. As he's been cornered, his lies have grown more vicious and dangerous. He conjures up conspiracies, spews hate and says established facts are lies and lies are truths.

This would be hard enough for a democracy to handle without Facebook sending Trump's unfiltered lies to the 45 percent of Americans, for whom it is a source of news. Twitter sends them to 68 million users every day.

A major characteristic of the internet goes by the fancy term "disintermediation." Put simply, it means sellers are linked directly to customers with no need for middlemen.

Amazon eliminates the need for retailers. Online investing eliminates the need for stockbrokers. Travel agents and real estate brokers are obsolete. At a keystroke, consumers get all the information they need.

 

But democracy can't be disintermediated. We're not just buyers and sellers. We're citizens who need to know what's happening around us in order to exercise our right to self-government, and our responsibility for it.

If a president and his enablers are peddling vicious and dangerous lies, we need reliable intermediaries that help us see them.

Intermediating between the powerful and the people was once mainly the job of publishers and journalists -- hence the term "media." This role was understood to be so critical to democracy that the constitution enshrined it in the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of the press.

With that freedom came public responsibility to be a bulwark against powerful lies. The media haven't always lived up to it. We had yellow journalism in the 19th century and today endure shock radio, the National Enquirer and Fox News.

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