Co-authored with Helen Berger, Resident Scholar-Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center
You can't yell fire in a crowded theater. Free speech has its limits. You can't endanger the lives of others with a false call of danger. However, on the Internet it seems that this type of speech is growing. It is called false or fake news, and just like yelling fire can lead to stampedes and deaths, it turns out, so can fake news. A man hyped up on lies and machismo drove to a pizzeria in Washington, DC and started shooting. The pizza shop was falsely reputed to be a child trafficking site headed up by Hillary Clinton, and the gunman felt he was protecting the surrounding area. In this case, the gunman didn't hurt anyone, but he sure frightened the families in the restaurant and forced a small businessman to shut down his store for days.
On October 30, 1938, H.G. Well's novel 'The War of the Worlds' about the landing of Martians in New Jersey was enacted on the radio. Many tuned in late since they wanted to hear the end of the World Series. They did not realize that this was a fictional event. Some people fearing the Martians had arrived reportedly committed suicide, others tried to flee Manhattan resulting in traffic jams. No, Martians were not landing and about to attack New York City, but the results were almost as dramatic as if they had.
False news is not funny and it is not innocent--real lives are destroyed by it. The sociologist WI Thomas said, "If men (sic) believe something to be real it is real in its consequences." This fake news did indeed have consequences. No one was killed in the pizza parlor but real children are left scarred, their parents scared, and the store owner wondering why he was picked for this abuse.
False news is part of a larger form of domestic terrorism. Primarily young men are riled up, encouraged to go out and kill people or beat up others because they are fed lies. How different is this from the way ISIS recruits its fighters? Not much. Groups are recruiting for a form of domestic terrorism in much the same way as ISIS is recruiting by spreading rumors, lies, and innuendos. In some ways the same group is being targeted, young men who are marginalized and gullible. These may be falsehoods but for those who believe them and for those caught in their cross hairs, the consequences are only too real.
Domestic terrorism is real -- the groups that are spreading these lies and doing the damage are justifying their methods by calling it free speech. In February 2015 the FBI report to Congress noted that Domestic Terrorism, from White Supremacists groups was equal to if not greater than the threat of ISIS. One way in which these groups do their work is to spread falsehoods or half truths.
We are now learning now it is not just domestic terrorists who are spreading false stories. Foreign nations who have a stake in our elections are using it quite successfully to influence the electorate not just in the presidential election but also in congressional races. It appears we may now have the government that the Russian want even though we are aware that Putin doesn't have our best interests at heart.
Maybe we are the same as the ISIS operatives or at least those of us who thrive on spreading false news are. And maybe we do need to put limits on speech on the internet just as we limit the right to create chaos in a crowded theater.