Facebook, Twitter And Almighty God
The Good Life
How should we respond to Facebook and Twitter banning political speakers who knowingly repeat factual falsehoods?
I have some experience with deciding what to publish, but no good ideas about what to do with these two Internet age companies.
For a half-century at newspapers, my job included deciding whether to print stories or letters that contained … “hogwash.”
But I am still puzzling about Facebook and Twitter. They do not fit within traditional laws and limits.
As an editor, I allowed some upsetting stuff to be published, following the hoary cliche that newspapers should “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
I disallowed some stuff, too. When a Ku Klux Klan member yammered from near Punxsutawney, we published a news story about his demonstration in DuBois. We did not print direct quotations, photos of hooded Klansmen or of crosses. We told readers what happened. We drew the line at what might promote his vile, racist bigotry.
I also got into a hassle about an obituary. The deceased had three surviving brothers. His obituary named two. His widow said he insisted in not naming the third brother because of a feud. That brother was a subscriber to our newspaper. We decided that either the obituary would name all surviving brothers, or else it would just say “survived by three brothers.” The published obituary included all the names.
A memorable decision came while I was working in Warren. I declined to publish repeated letters from “Almighty God,” also known as “Gene Shene” (not his real name.)
Gene would start out writing as Gene Shene. In mid-letter, he would claim he was then writing as “Almighty God,” using the body and pen of Gene Shene to transcribe divine thoughts that everybody in the world needed to know right now.
That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
It was — literally. Just north of Warren is Warren State Hospital. Back in the 1970s, it housed about 3,000 mental patients, including Gene. Gene had been court-committed, certifiably crazy.
I sent the letters back, explaining again and again that unless he could prove he was Almighty God, I wasn’t publishing the letters.
I looked up one day to see our flustered receptionist saying that the short, bald unassuming man behind her insisted that I had told him I did want to meet “him,” i.e., “Almighty God.”
Hmm. What to do?
“Why, hello, Gene!” I said, standing to shake his hand. We chatted. Then he started to switch to Almighty God.
“Umm … nope,” I said, adding something like, “You still look like Gene to me. If you look like Almighty God to me, of course I will fall down and worship you. But until then, nope.”
Gene might have been certifiably crazy, but he was logical.
That would be fine with him, he said. We talked. He left.
About three times a year, Gene would come into town on a bus. He would shop, then stop to talk with me about what God was thinking at that time.
He said that he understood that, without proof, I should not allow him to present himself to our readers as anyone except Gene.
The guy was crazy. But he was not nuts.
That brings us to Facebook and Twitter. I don’t see good choices. We could call Facebook and Twitter “publishers,” something like newspapers. If newspapers publish material that is false and defamatory, we can be sued for libel. If we publish stuff that is not false but is offensive, we can lose readers and advertisers, and commit economic suicide. So clearly, we need to have the right to decide how much risk is acceptable to us. But then Facebook or Twitter could delay comments for hours, days, even weeks, while figuring out if something really is false and defamatory. That defeats their entire premise of “Think it, type it, have it be seen by millions!”
Or we could call Facebook and Twitter public utilities, like landline telephone companies. Public utilities enjoy near-monopoly status. In return, they must accept regulation by governmental bodies. They can’t be sued for libel because they are “common carriers.” They do not evaluate content – except that the state Public Utilities Commission handles disputes between customers and public utilities. The PUC is a governmental entity, ultimately responsible to state government.
I did not want President Trump deciding what could and could not be published about President Trump. I do not want President Biden deciding what can and cannot be published about President Biden. That just won’t work, with Presidents, governors, mayors, etc.
So how do we handle this conundrum?
As of now, I don’t know what will work. I think I know what does not work. It does not work to try to force new companies to behave like older, different entities.
Facebook and Twitter are not newspapers or broadcast TV stations using government airwaves. They are not public utilities. They are … something new.
We need new laws or regulations – as soon as we figure out what, legally speaking, Facebook and Twitter actually ought to be.
I think Gene Shene would see some sense in that.
Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.