Leonard Pitts: Social media platforms and the fate of truth

(Andrew Harnik | AP file photo) Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 10, 2018.

It may be too much. And also too little.

Meaning last week’s announcement by Twitter that it is banning all political advertising over concerns that the medium gives politicians too much reach, too much power to deceive. News of the ban, which takes effect later this month, comes as that other social media giant — Facebook — struggles with fallout from its refusal to reject untrue political ads. Meaning not simply “spin,” but flat-out falsehoods. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose understanding of the First Amendment evidences all the depth of a “Schoolhouse Rock!” video, seems to feel he has some free speech obligation to provide a platform for liars to lie.

For this, he came under withering fire from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a recent congressional hearing. Meantime, hundreds of his employees have signed an open letter decrying the policy. And in California, a political activist filed to run for governor with the express purpose of placing false ads, forcing the (one hopes) chagrined company to ban him.

But while Facebook surely deserves the scorn it has received, one wonders whether Twitter's absolute ban is not overkill. There is no particular reason politicians should be singled out for blanket exclusion. Twitter should — like the newspapers and networks whose function it is supplanting — accept responsibility for making sure ads it runs have some reasonable proximity to the truth.

So yes, in imposing a sweeping ban, Twitter is arguably doing too much. And yet, paradoxically, also too little.

This story does not unfold in a vacuum, after all. Rather, it unfolds as we stagger through a perfect storm of mendacity that threatens to blow away not just truth, but the very concept of truth, the idea that it can ever be fully knowable or that knowing it even matters. The elements of this storm are manifold. They include:

Human nature (a body of scholarship dating to the '70s tells us we are wired for lies, congenitally predisposed to discount facts that contradict what we choose, or need, to believe); the decline of traditional news media (editors and producers who once served as gatekeepers vetting the reliability of information that reached the public now find their function largely diminished); journalism's embrace of false equivalence in the name of ideological "balance"; Fox "News"; the weaponization of untruth (see "Trump, Donald J."); and social media (suddenly, every crank with a smartphone thinks he's Walter Cronkite).

Add to all that the coming of so-called "deepfake" technology that will enable realistic audio and video of people saying and doing things they never said or did, and the result is a Category 10 hurricane of disinformation, misinformation, fraud, fiction, falsehood and deceit that will soon get even worse. So one regards Twitter's ban in much the same way one regards a neighbor's decision to start recycling as California burns and the ice caps turn to ice water.

It's a good thing, yes. But the action is minuscule against the need. Like climate change, this era of "alternative facts" is an existential crisis that will require a race-to-the-moon urgency — not simply from government, social media and news media, but also — indeed primarily — from us as citizens.

We have to decide — now — that truth has no political party, and reality matters. We have to support responsible news outlets. We have to recognize that facts exist not to support our biases, but to shape our reasoning. The alternative is a near future of chaos and decline. And the clock is ticking. So in the big picture, it matters little whether any action we take is too much or too little.

We better hope it's not too late.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com