Clarence Fanto: The facts on truth decay and social media

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LENOX — "Truth decay," a malady no oral surgeon can cure, cleverly describes the current era of "alternative facts" and disdain for objective reality checks. It helps explain why several acquaintances have told me, with a straight face, that Trump has never told a lie.

Published last year by the Rand Corporation, the book "Truth Decay" is subtitled "An initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life." The authors cite "increasing disagreement about facts, a blurring of the line between opinion and fact, an increase in the relative volume of opinion compared with fact, and lowered trust in formerly respected sources of factual information."

According to conservative columnist George Will's review in the Washington Post, the book also points out that "the public's mental bandwidth is being stressed by today's torrent of information from the internet, social media, cable television and talk radio, all of which might be subtracting from the public's stock of truth and trust — partly because the media's audience has difficulty sorting fact from opinions."

To put it another way, one person's truth is another person's lie.

Speaking of truth and consequences, my heroes of the past week included a group of Facebook employees who blasted their boss Mark Zuckerberg, the social media behemoth's CEO, for allowing politicians to run any ads they want, including false ones, on the site. As if to reinforce the point, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, became a superhero by banning all political advertising from the Twitterverse.

The Facebook employees posted their open letter to their profits-obsessed founder on an internal site called Facebook Workplace. They described the company's policy — amounting to open season for false political ads, including those planted by Russian trolls — as "a threat to what FB stands for. We strongly object to this policy as it stands. This is still our company."

The letter, made available to The New York Times, was signed by more than 250 employees — admittedly a tiny sliver of Facebook's 35,000-plus work force.

I've never had any use for Facebook, especially since too much "information" on the site turns out to be misleading gossip at best and downright fabrication at worst. In my reporting work for the Lenox "metro area," I've learned that chasing down Facebook rumors is a fool's errand. My bad for having been foolish at times.

Zuckerberg, not an evil CEO but certainly clueless, tone-deaf and apparently unable to comprehend the basics of American democracy, has been under fire in Congress, by free speech advocates who understand the price of paid speech (political advertising) and by several presidential candidates.

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Elizabeth Warren played a memorable stunt on Facebook by posting a false ad claiming that Zuckerberg and the company had endorsed President Trump for re-election. Later, she stated that Zuckerberg has turned his company into a "disinformation-for-profit" machine.

It appears the company leader has not seen fit to respond directly to his protesting employees. Instead, a spokeswoman issued a bland, boilerplate statement: "Facebook's culture is built on openness, so we appreciate our employees voicing their thoughts on this important topic. We remain committed to not censoring political speech, and will continue exploring additional steps we can take to bring increased transparency to political ads."

In other words, go back to your cubicles and leave the policy stuff to us.

Strangely, Zuckerberg has some grasp of the Russian efforts to sabotage American elections; he set up a task force of thousands to enhance security on Facebook and combat disinformation.

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But he decided to let politicians accelerate truth decay by posting whatever they want, backsliding from the previous policy of banning paid political ads that "include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers," notably the Trump campaign's falsehoods about Joe Biden. Despite complaints from the Biden campaign, Facebook declined to remove the ad.

Zuckerberg likes to wave the banner "freedom of expression," telling students at Georgetown University in Washington last month that in time, Facebook will be vindicated. "People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society," he told the students.

As a power broker, Zuckerberg certainly has delusions of grandeur. He must be dreading a possible Warren presidency, since she champions an effort to break up Facebook.

Perhaps Jack Dorsey, the Twitter CEO, was impressed by the central point in the Facebook employee letter — no-holds-barred political advertising "doesn't protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy."

Now banned on Twitter: all ads from or about political candidates, elections and issues such as abortion and immigration.

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"While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions," Dorsey stated in (of course) a tweet. The new rules take effect later this month and will be in force globally.

President Trump's Twitter feed followers, 66 million in all, need not fear. Their leader's fulminations will continue to be disseminated, as the thought bubbles of the nation's chief executive and commander in chief are deemed newsworthy, rightly so, no matter how odious they may be.

"In a democracy, I don't think it's right for private companies to censor politicians or the news," Zuckerberg said last Wednesday. What he still fails to grasp is that advertising by politicians is not news, but paid propaganda.

Trump doesn't need to advertise on Twitter, of course, since he has a direct line to his followers. But his campaign spent over $250,000 on Facebook ads in just one week last month.

Predictably, his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, blasted Dorsey, alleging that "this is yet another attempt to silence conservatives, since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known."

Of course, the Twitter ad ban "silences" liberals as well. But the bottom line here is that political candidates can still advertise to their hearts' content on Facebook and on TV networks — even newspapers! — and avail themselves of free, 24-hour exposure on CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

A year from today (Nov. 3), when Americans finish casting ballots, I hope the results — whatever they might be — are fair, honest and, if nothing else, free of truth decay.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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