During my days as a newspaper publisher I came to the conclusion that there were only three things that infuriated readers:
Something in the paper they didn’t like, something they wanted in the paper that didn’t get published and a late or non-delivered paper.
Of the three, delivery issues drew the largest number of complaints, but content of the paper — either something that was published or something not published — elicited the most anger.
I recall years ago running an advertisement criticizing a local school district and its superintendent. The man who placed the ad paid for it to run multiple times.
The first time it ran, the superintendent showed up at the office and pointed out documentary evidence that an allegation in the ad was false.
So, I directed the advertising department to call the man and tell him he could reword his ad, omitting the false information, or we would refund his money.
He didn’t like the options, so he filed a lawsuit to force us to run the ad as it was. The judge promptly dismissed the suit.
What our disgruntled advertiser didn’t understand was that he could have been sued for running a libelous allegation, and, more importantly to me, the newspaper could have been a co-defendant.
That happened before the Internet, and these days the man could put his grievance, including the false information, on Facebook unless they censored it which is unlikely.
Maybe he could be sued, but Facebook would be protected from liability by Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act passed by Congress in 1996. Section 230 says that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
So, Google, Facebook and Twitter don’t have to play by the same rules as do owners of old-fashioned printing presses, although they are taking advertisers and readers away from traditional publishers who must adhere to the laws of libel.
The big technology companies and their protections are coming under scrutiny, though.
Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker of the Senate Commerce Committee has been leading hearings on what he calls “addressing censorship and political bias” on their platforms.
“These companies control the vast flow of news and information online and have faced growing criticism for restricting conservative voices and the free spread of information,” Wicker wrote in a recent op ed column.
He went on to write that Section 230 protections, while shielding tech companies from potentially ruinous lawsuits and promoting the growth of the internet, have “also given Big Tech free reign to censor content as they see fit without facing consequences for their actions.”
Wicker and others, especially supporters of President Trump, claim there’s a double standard in censorship and conservative voices are most likely to be censored.
On the other side of the political spectrum from Wicker are those who want to break up the big tech companies.
Unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren wrote during her campaign:
“America’s big tech companies provide valuable products but also wield enormous power over our digital lives. Nearly half of all e-commerce goes through Amazon. More than 70% of all Internet referral traffic goes through sites owned or operated by Google or Facebook.
“As these companies have grown larger and more powerful, they have used their resources and control over the way we use the Internet to squash small businesses and innovation, and substitute their own financial interests for the broader interests of the American people. To restore the balance of power in our democracy, to promote competition, and to ensure that the next generation of technology innovation is as vibrant as the last, it’s time to break up our biggest tech companies,” said Warren.
As an old newspaper man, I’m almost inclined to side with Warren, but then my grandson works for Google.
I’m glad I don’t have to figure it all out.
Charlie Dunagin is editor and publisher emeritus of the McComb Enterprise-Journal. He lives in Oxford.