The President is the Chief Executive of the United States. He runs the military and his cabinet controls most of the administrative function of government. The legislative branch creates our nation’s laws. And the Supreme Court, when called upon, tells us what those laws mean.
The beauty of this system is that each leg of the stool keeps the other in balance. We call it a “system of checks and balances”.
We’ve recently seen the power of the Internet demonstrated in other governments. The seeds of the Egyptian revolution were sown, fertilized and nurtured on social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. A government that had enjoyed power for decades was overthrown as a result of its people connecting and congregating through social media.
The United States system of government was based upon “one person/ one vote”. Each person cast a vote for its representative. If the representative did not execute the will of its constituents, eventually, they would lose their office. The people would vote and the majority prevailed. Politicians, empowered by this majority vote, would fulfill the duties of their office based upon their mandate. If a voter was unhappy with his elected representative he would write a letter, or perhaps pay a visit. The representative would spend time with his constituents, in order to ascertain the will of the people.
And then, along came William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was the founder of the publishing system that eventually mad the daily newspaper a part of American life. Politicians read the newspapers. And politicians did not want to read unfavorable stories about themselves, for obvious reasons.
Another basic civics lesson deals with the freedom of speech afforded by the First Amendment to our Constitution. The Founders, responding to tyranny of the King ensured that we have the right to say what we think. At the same time, there were limits to the freedom of speech. The Supreme Court has decided that we didn’t intend to protect obscene speech, for example. And the law of defamation acted as a deterrent to unbridled and irresponsible commentary. The result was that journalists checked their facts and did their best to report the truth. It was yet another system of checks and balances.
Over time, technology and commerce began to intervene in the process. I’m talking about polls and lobbyists. Politicians began using polls to help them understand the will of the people. Large polling organizations sprang up and became essential tools in politics. Lobbyists represented the needs of their special interest employers. The potential unbalancing effect of lobbying became such a concern that Congress enacted rules governing how lobbyists could operate.
Today, the court of public opinion can change overnight via social media and blogs. It’s called “going viral”. We see it happen every single day. Charlie Sheen gains millions of followers overnight on Twitter as a result of his website rants and raves. Roger Ebert, a cancer survivor and otherwise respected media journalist becomes universally attacked, based upon what was probably a random thought expressed on Twitter.
And our politicians use social media to what they hope will be their best advantage. It’s cheap and effective. Any marketer knows that publicity is more powerful than paid advertising. Publicity carries an inherent authenticity that can hugely influence. And that’s why it has become so universally employed by politicians. And there is an intimacy of sorts between people that social media can create, without the corresponding obligation of normal human interaction. Worse, there is a false sense of anonymity created by social media and the Internet. “Weinergate” teaches us that there is no real anonymity on the Internet, if someone wants to dig deeply enough.
I’m not saying that the Internet is a bad thing. I’m saying that it is a very powerful thing. In the old days, politicians listened to their constituents, read the newspapers and polls. And they made judgments about that information which resulted in laws and public policy. Today, the risk is that we will listen too much to social media.
“But what about the freedom of speech”, you might ask. After all, it has been a constitutionally-protected right since the beginning of our country. But in those days, “mass media” consisted of perhaps, at best, a poster. We could say what we thought, but our audience might be a few dozen people at any given time. Today, if my thought goes viral, it can potentially be heard by millions of people.
And at that point, you have to consider the source. Is the source factual or is it merely appealing to the thoughts and desires of a lot of people? We’ve all seen emails passed along by friends purported to be true, that turned out otherwise. There are stories and comments posted on social media that go viral quickly; the reported death of a celebrity, for example, that turned out to be false. Social media can become a pipeline for rumors, innuendo and simple falsehoods.
So here’s the thing. The Internet and social media are growing hugely, in terms of influence on the American people. But in many cases, the information being passed along isn’t “vetted” by anyone. Anyone can blog. Anyone can create a YouTube video. Anyone can post something on Twitter or Facebook. And if it goes viral, it takes on a life of its own. The information is, for all intents and purposes, created anonymously. In many cases, we know absolutely nothing about the publisher of the information and we don’t bother to check it out. So there is no system of checks and balances.
And here’s the point. As a country, we should be very careful about shaping our laws and public policy based upon this kind of information. If our politicians begin to listen so carefully to social media that they lose objectivity about the messages conveyed, they will lead us to the wrong place. If we shape our laws or policies based upon the rantings of a particular blogger that happened to go viral, we will stumble.
We are a nation of the people, for the people and by the people. But today, we are also a nation of Twitter followers. I propose that those of us who use social media begin to create a new system of checks and balances. I’ll call it “your conscience”. Anytime you read something on the Internet, use “your conscience”. If you read something, use your God-given analytical skills to decide for yourself whether it could be true. If you decide it isn’t, don’t pass it along. Use “your conscience” to decide whether or not you should post something on Twitter of Facebook. As conversational as it all seems, there is a big difference between a casual comment between friends, and something that is arguably published forever.
Let “your conscience” be your guide.
I wish you the best in your legal studies.