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Port: The war on misinformation may be about as futile as the war on drugs

We can hold accountable the people who tell lies for profit, but what do we do about the demand side of the equation?

alex-jones.jpg
Alex Jones, founder of the conspiracy theory website Infowars, in Austin, Texas, Feb. 17, 2017.
(Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times/Copyright 2018)
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Minot, N.D. — I have been following, very close, the legal proceedings between wildly successful conspiracy monger Alex Jones and the parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook shooting.

The Sandy Hook parents appear to be winning as their trial begins, and those of us who are interested in truth, and not cozy lies that slake our thirst for confirmation bias, have to be feeling hopeful.

One of the grand maladies of our time is the dense cloud of false information that permeates our efforts to govern ourselves.

If someone like Jones can be held accountable for his falsehoods about Sandy Hook, perhaps it means that Dominion Voting Systems will prevail in their lawsuit against Trump-aligned "news" organizations like Newsmax and One America News that perpetrated lies about the 2020 election, and, in turn, perhaps we'll see a "chilling effect" among those who would mislead for profit.

Except, I'm not so sure.

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The problem with information isn't the supply, I'm afraid. It's the demand.

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One of the best things about our freedom of speech, and participatory politics, is that everyone gets a say. One of the worst things is that "everyone" includes a lot of morons.

People like Alex Jones and Donald Trump, and companies like Newsmax or OAN, and of course all the people and organizations on the left side of politics who also traffic in deceit, didn't create, in the public, a desire for comfortable mendacities that conform to what certain factions of the public want to believe.

They didn't invent this market, is what I'm trying to tell you.

They serve it.

Given that truth, I'm skeptical about the utility of lawsuits to restore order to our discourse. I'm not against people like Jones being held accountable for the harm they've done. “Speech is free, but lies you have to pay for,” Mark Bankston, the attorney for the Sandy Hook parents, said in his opening remarks at trial.

That's as it should be.

But consider our efforts to conquer other illicit markets. The "war on drugs," for instance, where we've spent decades, and trillions of dollars, trying to stem the supply of illegal narcotics, while doing almost nothing to address the demand for them among Americans.

So it will be with political lies. As long as there are people who want to hear them, there will be a host of people looking to earn a buck by telling them.

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And, to be clear, it's always been this way. Salacious lies have always been more marketable than the prosaic truth. But in years past, mass communication was expensive. If you didn't own a printing press, or a broadcast station, your ability to reach a large audience was minimal. And those who did own those means of communication could easily be identified for the purposes of accountability.

Today, a video featuring morons rubbing hot sauce in their eyes is likely to get more views than a debate between presidential candidates. And good luck trying to figure out who is responsible for the Qanon conspiracy theories which have inspired so many Americans to leave rational thought behind.

So, yes, we can hold accountable the people who tell lies for profit, but what do we do about the demand side of the equation?

I wish I had an answer.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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