What Sandy Hook Settlement Means for Honesty in Communication

The father of one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook mass shooting has been awarded $450,000 in a defamation case against individuals waging a disinformation campaign that the shooting did not really occur and that his child did not really die.

“What?” may be your reaction to the idea that anyone would attack bereaved parents and fabricate a story that their loss never happened, but was instead some type of bizarre conspiracy or cover-up.

Thank goodness, justice was done. But the fact that a parent would have to go to court to stop this harassment is a sign of a huge betrayal of our country’s laws and its principles.

Today in America, liars can lie, cheaters can cheat, and there is no accountability.

Whether it’s in politics, the “dark web,” or just every day social media, false statements (which used to be called lies) can be made and there are no consequences. The louder and more often these falsehoods are repeated, and the more channels feature them, the more people start assuming they must be true. Thus, millions of people believe that distinguished public servants are terrorists, are Satanic or are running child porn rings, that there is a vast conspiracy in government to persecute certain religions, and that the dangers of climate change and racism just don’t exist.

It used to be that lying was dishonorable. Today it is expected. Being caught means nothing.

Case in point for the change in our attitudes about honesty: In a legal action, I pointed out to the attorney that the other side had lied repeatedly under oath, which is considered perjury. Shouldn’t that be part of our case to discredit them and their other false statements? “No, I don’t want to bring that up,” he said. “Everyone lies.”

Everyone lies?????? Actually, there are plenty of honorable people in the world. It’s just that those who aren’t, and who are never called to task for their actions, are confusing and obfuscating truth for their own self-interest, so often that we don’t know what to believe. That confusion leads to skepticism, cynicism, and blind partisanship.

When the sources of information were fewer and more controlled, lying as a way of life was harder. You were on TV and everyone saw you, you were in the newspaper and media not only fact checked stories but also was bound – until these laws were rolled back – to cover both sides of an issue. Politicians who lied were punished. Business people caught in lies that harmed others, went to jail.

Sure, there was still corruption and people who got away with it. But those people were the exception. Liars and thieves usually lost their reputations, their freedom, and their power.

Now, in the “Wild West” of the Internet and social media, checks on the veracity of information don’t exist. Journalists doing balanced reports are attacked as purveyors of “fake news.” Propagandists, like the Russians who interfered in the last election, can influence millions with false information from seemingly known sources individually targeting people within groups that would be receptive to these senders. Wild stories spread like, well, wild fires. Remember the gunman who stormed a pizza parlor because he – and countless others – believed that a Presidential candidate was running a child porn ring out of the basement? Of course, this was not true. It was a story made up by some young people in Eastern Europe who wanted a fantastical story that would serve at clickbait – making them a ton of money.

Congress is investigating tech companies’ responsibility for sharing people’s proprietary information and for failing to have any way to police false information. (This exercise led to the hilarious episode in which the ancient Old Guard in government had to be educated about what social media is).

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook, in referring to social media companies’ responsibility for the veracity of the content on these sites, said that people didn’t want tech companies to determine truth. Well, tech companies don’t determine truth. OBJECTIVE REALITY determines truth.

Fortunately, one leader stepped up, recognized the problem, and established a new Cabinet post and department to deal with issues concerning the new communications technology. Unfortunately, this leader is fictitious. He is the character in the series “Designated Survivor” who is the President. Played by actor Tom Kirkman, this President is the model for what a national leader should be. Would that he were real!

In real life, statements by public officials are fact checked, but when they turn out to be untrue, nothing happens.  Instead they are repeated over and over until they become familiar and begin to sound more and more plausible. After all, if this information wasn’t true, people wouldn’t be allowed to say it, right? Well, wrong.

Why is there so much fear and reluctance around vigorously holding liars accountability? Why should anyone question that the purveyors of information are accountable for verifying its accuracy? Inciting others to violence that harms others is supposed to be a crime. Why aren’t those who are doing this, prosecuted?

The bottom line is, a devastated parent should not have to go to court to defend the truth about their murdered child. That is obscene. If that is the only recourse for justice in the face of damage caused by liars, we’re failing as a society.

Yes, social media companies should police their content and remove that which incites violence. Yes, they should have a rating system that indicates content has no basis in fact. Yes, we should all wake up and agree that free speech does not mean someone has the right to willfully lie to enrich themselves or hurt others.

Part 2 of this series will examine how lies come to be believed, and how we need to speak the truth to prevail in the public and private debate.

Interested in healing America? Order "Magenta Nation" today and get started.

Think people can’t change their beliefs? Read “Love or Loyalty” to see the power of forgiveness in healing relationships and our nation.

Wondering about how families can heal, even after death? Read “Love Eternal... One More Time” to be amused and enlightened.

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