Leonard Pitts: Living in an era where misinformation is weaponized

President Donald Trump holds up a copy of the New York Post as speaks before signing an executive order aimed at curbing protections for social media giants, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Washington, as Attorney General William Barr watches. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“Jared Kushner is under federal investigation for diverting money to terrorist organizations according to a guy I met at the gas station who told me he works for the FBI” is something I would never be allowed to publish.

“Donald Trump Jr. has an escalating cocaine dependency problem according to a woman I ran into at the supermarket who told me she’s his dealer” is another sentence my editor would flag.

There is, you see, this thing in the news business called judgment. You may or may not have ever heard of it, though it is supposed to be one of the foundation stones of journalism.

Many of us have spent years pretending otherwise. Which is to say, pretending we are not in the business of deciding what is important and what isn’t, what is authoritative and what is not. Instead, we embrace false equivalence and specious syntactical strategies to spare ourselves from having to draw even the most obvious conclusions.

That’s how you get people hanging nooses and using the n-word and reporters dubbing it “racially insensitive.”

It’s how you get news media creating fake balance between climate scientists and climate change deniers.

It is how, more than 20,000 lies later, you get reports of Donald Trump saying bizarre things “for which he provided no evidence.”

In seeking to avoid charges of anti-conservative bias, mainstream news media have too often been serial evaders of their responsibility to tell the truth without fear or favor. And as social media have, to a large degree, supplanted mainstream media as information conduits, they’ve proven, if anything, even more cowardly.

Which makes last week’s brouhaha over the New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden all the more fascinating. It seems Facebook and Twitter both limited users' ability to share the story, which purports to be based on emails showing that Joe Biden’s son peddled access to his father when the elder Biden was vice president.

The restriction has the right wing up in arms. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat labeled it “dangerous and stupid.” Sen. Ted Cruz called it “censorship.”

I’m not going to spend a lot of time analyzing the story itself. Suffice it to say, it is amateurish and poorly sourced. As to its trustworthiness, well, the paper says it received the emails on a duplicated hard drive from that fount of unimpeachable credibility, Rudy Giuliani. 'Nuff said.

But as to the charges leveled by conservatives: No government agency has banned or intimidated the Post. All that happened is, two shareholder-owned companies declined to allow broad dissemination of a story they found dubious. That’s not censorship. It’s responsibility, belatedly accepted.

People have literally died, let us not forget, from U.S. social media’s willingness to be used as uncritical platforms for untruths. BuzzFeed, The Columbia Journalism Review and the New York Times have reported Facebook’s role in violent unrest from Libya to Germany to Myanmar. Which is a visceral argument that, if social media are going to supplant news media’s function, they darn well better accept news media’s obligation to vet what they put out.

Maybe this is a step in that direction. Either way, it is less troubling that social media restricted the story than that they had to, that we live in an era where misinformation is so readily weaponized. And that’s the real point.

“For all its pious moaning about censorship, the right wing is more upset about being held to a standard of verifiable truth because they know it’s one they cannot meet” is a sentence I’m pretty sure I can get away with.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

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