A little clarity helps

Everyone has a pet peeve – or these days, a plurality of annoyances.

Work your way through our letters pages on any given week and there are plenty of thought-provoking views on a wide range of subjects. Some are pet peeves and others are very serious interests in civic policy and humanity for that matter. Quite often those opinions lead to more opinions, and so on.

It is this healthy exchange of ideas that keeps a community engaged and democracy strong. It is something we encourage here at the Advertiser – hosting one of the best editorial pages and letters section in the province of Ontario.

There is a cost to that commitment and thankfully revenue generated through advertising is strong enough to continue supporting our efforts to provide a forum for constructive dialogue amongst locals.

This past week a curious proposition was put to us after the publication of one of the more forceful editorials authored in my time here. Entitled The power of words and danger of lies, it offered an opinion on the failed attempt of rioters to disrupt the counting of ballots to certify the results and install a new president in the U.S.

Washington, DC presently resembles a police state, cordoned off by fences and razor wire, which seems to us to be the antithesis of freedom, and armed troops stand on guard should attempts be made to disrupt Inauguration Day (Jan. 20). The proposition or pseudo-allegation was that the editorial was one-sided and did not draw on all the facts. We remain unaware of any occasion in American history where an armed mob attempted through force to overturn the results of a free election.

While well outside our jurisdiction of local coverage, that culmination of reckless words and untruths in DC provided a crystal clear example of what happens when fomented rage explodes. Video coverage released since then only stands to confirm the point. Most telling is the remorseful pleas of some participants now facing serious charges excusing their actions as “getting swept up in the moment” that day. Words have meaning and actions based on lies have negative consequences.

The relevance for Canadians is that we must value our democracy,  for it is a fragile commodity that needs tending all the time. Failing to listen to one another, failing to call out radical mindsets, promoting untruths as fact, suppressing equality and approaching problems with unfettered cynicism is not a way to strengthen democracy.

In fact, inaction on these fronts encourages mistrust and resentment. As the gaps between the extremes and the lines of civility grow weaker and weaker, the country’s institutions risk collapse. The American experience the last four years speaks to that.

The further risk for Canadians is the seepage of that venom across the border. Suspicion, fake news, losing rights, Q-anon conspiracy theories – those buzzwords have caught on here in certain circles, making the search for truth and observance of fairness more difficult. It was this very menace that compelled a Canadian Forces reserve member to ram through the gates of Rideau Hall this past July. How soon we forget: Canada too is susceptible to radical elements and dubious ideas.

As it currently stands, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the U.S. grants a special exemption to social media companies.

The platforms those companies developed to share information are not regulated and they have zero responsibility for what is posted on their comment boards. A lie can be told without repercussions – whereas newspapers and regulated broadcasters can and are sued for publishing false information. With that incredible advantage over traditional media, social media companies have established unstoppable monopolies and made absolute fortunes without the responsibilities associated with publishing information.

The Section 230 exemption has been used by groups and individuals to disseminate misinformation and disinformation with no checks against its authenticity. These tactics have drawn in impressionable people believing what they read is accurate and true and the more they involve themselves with those falsehoods, the less open they are to other sources of real information.

The overdue effort to remedy Section 230 and make social media companies more accountable and responsible to their users is being labeled as a form of censorship in some circles. The cancellation of Trump and dozens of other accounts in recent weeks has given rise to the idea that this is yet another conspiracy to shortchange everyday people of their liberties.

Proposing as one letter writer to the Advertiser did this week, that a push to “censor” is political opportunism based on the convenience of events in Washington, DC is a statement we can’t agree with.

The point is worth pondering and the effort taken to write a cogent opinion is greatly appreciated, but free speech comes with responsibilities and social media as it currently stands is far from a panacea to advancing democracy. Disinformation – a favourite of the KGB, actually – cannot stand.

Every effort will be made to offer a place for respectful conversation and exploration of ideas. And for clarity’s sake, the standards we expect on our news pages must be adhered to online as well to ensure civility and the respect owed our readers.

It’s just the way it is.