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Darrell Berkheimer: A way to halt spreading of lies

Darrell Berkheimer | Columnist

The No. 1 objective of government is to provide for the security of its citizens. Our federal government, however, is failing to do that as it allows mass media to continue the spread of misinformation, lies, untruths and false conspiracy theories that create dangerous divisiveness and threaten individual citizens.

But how to control such activities raises the crucial question: Can we continue to protect freedom of speech while penalizing those agencies that spread untruths and misinformation?

Tribalism, of course, is a significant part of the problem. But we can expect tribalism to be with us indefinitely, as evidenced by eons of global history. And we will continue to have one or more groups who mistrust others — with a willingness to believe the very worst about another tribe, regardless of the truth.

So when mass media is allowed to spread lies in favor of one group over another without penalty, divisiveness is the result. And the more that condition is allowed to continue unabated, the deeper the divide and the more threatening the members of one or more tribes will become.

Such is the current situation in our United States — and in numerous other nations on our globe. Various degrees of warfare have been the result.

In addition, the spread of such untruths is prompting too many of our citizens to threaten their own lives by ingesting chemical compounds that can cause death.

Of course, we must continue to protect freedom of speech and allow opinion to continue unabated. But there is a distinct difference between opinion and factual truth.

Does it not seem obvious, then, that we need one or more laws against the spreading of untruths and misinformation?

The laws we now have to control untruths concern libel, defamation and slander. But they are quite limited to protecting the reputation and character of individuals and organizations. They offer no control over misinformation that does not target particular individuals or organizations.

One such falsehood that should be stopped from spreading is the microchip conspiracy theory that claims the COVID-19 vaccine inoculations include a microchip to track our activities. Even though scientific and legal authorities have repeatedly stated that it’s false, a substantial number of Americans have cited that as a reason not to get vaccinated.

An Insider news story in mid-July reported as many as one in five Americans believed or suspected the microchip theory is true. As a result, those who subsequently cited that as a reason to decline the vaccination not only put their own health and lives in danger, but all those who they come in contact with, as well.

Two other falsehoods spread quickly by conservative mass media and social media claimed that hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, when ingested internally, could protect the users against the COVID virus. Medical authorities subsequently warned that neither should be used for that purpose, and that both posed various threats to the health and lives of those who used those substances.

Hydroxychloroquine is used to prevent malaria, treat skin diseases, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis — when used as prescribed by a doctor. But it has serious side effects that can be life threatening depending on the amount ingested.

And ivermectin is used mainly to deworm animals. Its use can be even more life threatening, and a couple deaths were reported after it was used to protect against the virus.

Although the dangers of these false claims have been widely reported, little has been done to stop the repetition of those claims on conservative and social media.

The only efforts to combat such claims have involved the initiation of media literacy curriculum to instruct students in how to determine which media sources are trustworthy. Notably California, Washington and Massachusetts have initiated such media literacy programs. The California law was inspired by a Stanford University student who found that most students can’t distinguish between sponsored content and news stories.

But more can and should be done.

It would be extremely difficult to prevent the original or initial dissemination of “fake news,” lies and misrepresentations. We must continue to protect free speech. But we could and should enact laws against the continuing spread and repetition of lies and untruths — after the proper scientific and/or legal authorities have declared them to be false.

No one is a more ardent supporter of freedom of the press and speech than myself. But we must have a procedure that allows the executive branch’s justice department to seek a federal injunction with a cease-and-desist order against continuing to spread such lies and untruths.

After such an order is issued to a media representative, it would be that medium’s responsibility to warn its users that they and the medium would be liable for criminal charges for continuing to spread the untruths.

The injunction then would strip away the media “carrier” exemption — but only regarding that specific untruth.

If the person or organization then ignores the order by continuing to repeat that untruth and is found guilty of doing so, the law should include hefty fines and/or jail terms — with appropriate increases in those penalties for continuing violations.

Our lawmakers are long overdue to draft such limiting and protective legislation.

Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He has eight books available through Amazon. His sixth, “Essays from The Golden Throne,” includes 60 columns published by The Union, plus a dozen western travel and photo essays. Contact him at mtmrnut@yahoo.com


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