All of us must look at social media ‘influencers’ with informed skepticism, the Editorial Board writes, lest our brains be clogged with misinformation and confusion

(Utah Fifth District Court) Ruby Franke and Jodi Hildebrandt make an appearance in Fifth District Court in St. George, Friday, Sept. 8., 2023. The two women face six felony counts each of aggravated child abuse.

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, s*** detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

— Ernest Hemingway

Papa’s advice applies not only to writers, but also to readers. Or, as they have come to be known, consumers of media. And, as there is more and more media to consume, each of us needs to build up the strength of our own filters and not allow ourselves to be bamboozled.

Failure to do so threatens our individual and collective health, our democracy and our sanity.

Little about our modern lives is so troubling as the fact that the ubiquitous channels of social and electronic media — born with great potential to enlighten and inform without the interdiction of government or mainstream media — have largely devolved into a mass of irredeemable drek that, even when they don’t lie, clog our channels of communication with confusion and our brains with a hardening of the cerebral arteries.

It is not only the lies about the 2020 election spread by right-wing media and by the often-indicted former president. It is not just the misinformation about pandemics and vaccines, as bad as those are.

The problem is that many of these loudmouth “influencers” have no sense of journalistic responsibility to the truth or to their followers, no editors, no institutional memory or legacy to uphold, and give it all away for free, should repel any audience. Instead, it seems to be exactly what attracts a very large one.

A couple of those influencers, Jodi Hildebrant and Ruby Franke, are now being held in a St. George jail cell, charged with six counts of felony child abuse. Prosecutors allege that Franke’s malnourished 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter had basically been held prisoner in Hildebrandt’s Ivins home, until the boy managed to escape and, duct tape still stuck to his ankles and wrists, make his way to a neighbor’s home in search of food and water.

The fact that Hildebrandt and Franke had been promoting themselves as parenting and mental health experts online before all the disturbing allegations came to light doesn’t really make what they are accused of doing any more or less heinous.

It does explain why a case that normally would draw little interest outside of Utah has fascinated serious and semi-serious media organizations around the world. Media outfits already predisposed to see Utah as a place where the weird lead the weird and people are easily fooled.

And why the livestream of one of the early court hearings in the case saw so much online demand that it basically crashed the Washington County internet for a short time.

The fact that Franke and Hildebrandt had such large online followings before their recent fall to earth, and that their case continues to draw global attention, is evidence that it doesn’t take real expertise or responsibility to become online stars. Just a brazenness and a gullible audience.

Such floods of nonsense are not so much harmful in themselves as they are a massive time suck that distracts us all, individually and collectively, from really important matters in our families, communities and nations.

Hannah Arendt, a leading expert on the history of freedom and totalitarianism, pointed out that the problem with a flood of lies is not that we will believe the lies, but that so many of us will be left not knowing what to believe, or even that there is any such thing as truth. Which leaves us all especially vulnerable to being misled.

All the attention focused on this case may, though, help the state of Utah take a closer look at how it handles complaints from neighbors and relatives who report concern about alleged child abuse and neglect to the Utah Division of Child and Family Services.

Those who raised concerns about the Franke children apparently being left alone for long periods of time report that DCFS workers said there was nothing they could do, citing what’s known as Utah’s “free-range children” law. That’s the 2018 act of the Legislature intended to allow families the freedom to decide for themselves when their children are old enough to, say, stay home alone or walk to and from school by themselves without being second-guessed by the state.

There is no reasonable interpretation of that law that would forgive parents who tie up their children and allow them to become so malnourished that they require hospitalization. The Legislature and the executive need to make that very clear.

There is also some reason to hope, meanwhile, that social media can sometimes police itself.

Another YouTube star, who built up a large online following promoting herself as a holistic health expert, recently launched an internet tsunami by claiming that the whole idea of people needing glasses or contact lenses to correct their vision is just a big scam.

The claim by the self-described “holistic master coach” Samantha Lotus included the promotion of products offered by the Utah multi-level marketing firm doTERRA as a supposed alternative to traditional vision correction.

To its credit, doTERRA not only makes no such claims for its own products, it quickly moved to disassociate itself from Lotus’ statements. Statements that have now largely vanished from the internet.

It is worth noting that this excess of social media was first called out by other social media influencers, in this case led on X (formerly known as Twitter) by a poster who goes by the single name of Mallory. Mallory’s primary function, apparently, is to expose dubious wellness claims made by MLM operations.

Score one for the idea that the excesses of free speech are best cured by more free speech. That calls for government censorship are not justified.

But there won’t always be a Mallory to point out such suspect claims. And, as we don’t really know who Mallory is, that source may not necessarily be any more reliable than those it questions.

In such an unstable world, paying attention to, and supporting, responsible media organizations — such as the one you are reading right now — will help. Media literacy education, melded into high school civics curricula, is also needed.

But the ultimate responsibility belongs to each one of us. To be careful and skeptical in our acceptance of what we are told, especially by those whose only skill is the ability to grab an online bullhorn and shout the loudest.