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To Combat Fake News, Give People More Media Control

Whether it’s Sinclair’s five minutes of hate, Alex Jones’ rants, Russian Federation bots’ tweets, Assange’s leaks, or Fox News’ commentators’ lies, one of the biggest problems today is bad information, media pollution.

And there’s an open question of how to deal with it all. Well, to deal with some of it. Really, it depends whom you ask.

But the best solution is to empower people by giving them greater control over what they read and watch, how they read and watch it, and how they share content with others. That’s a heavy lift, as the same lack of control that empowers the bad actors helps the media conglomerates to exert influences that pad their own pockets.

Copyright law badly needs an update for the modern world, where it’s easy and useful to share content beyond what the strictures of existing law allow. Having greater control over hardware and software that enables media access would shake up the marketplace while letting users spend their finite time more wisely. There is much work needed here, and there is little impetus for the incumbents to roll up their sleeves.

This past week on at least one cable provider The View and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert had their listing data screwed up. That meant that at least some users’ DVRs failed to record James Comey’s book promotions. It’s almost certain to be a screw up in the listing distribution chain, but it is an example of media pollution that people who have paid for the privilege may have missed content they wanted to see. They could jump through hoops to see the interviews, but it’s not in their preferred format or at their preferred time.

The technology industry could have a hand in empowering viewers, but the FCC blocked a proposal to force cable companies to grant access to third party hardware. For whatever reason, the Apples and Googles of the world did not lobby hard enough to make it happen. Missed opportunity. These talking-listening hubs they sell for homes would be much more useful if they allowed for interaction with the real main home hub: the television.

On websites like Twitter and Facebook, the limited access they give their users to filter and augment the feed means that people are forced to dig, scrounge, or put up with so many bad behaviors. Every single time I search on Twitter, I’m bound to find at least one tweet with every hashtag under the sun trying to advertise some stupid thing (or porn).

Now, you say, back when newspapers were the thing, people didn’t have control. But newspapers, I say, weren’t endless streams of data. Paracelsus says the dose makes the poison, and high-volume media vehicles like Twitter increase the dose considerably.

The media companies that aren’t thrilled about the likes of Trump, Fascism, and the Anti-American Way should give more power to the viewer. Make it happen. It’ll make you more money in the long run, and it will help to thwart bad actors like Sinclair in the meantime.

Agent of the Government

Some thoughts on government employees defying the government.

Kentucky’s Rowan County Clerk, Kim Davis, is an elected official briefly held in contempt of court for failure to perform her official duties in issuing marriage licenses. She has refused on the basis of her religious beliefs. The main issue here is that people fail to understand what it means to act as an agent of the government.

When someone is acting as an agent of the government, it is not them acting as their own, private person. It is them taking on the government’s persona in order to accomplish the tasks of governing in the absence of robots and computers capable of doing them. Some day soon, positions like Davis’ may be eliminated and a robotic computer may issue marriage licenses in Kentucky. In the meantime, we use humans to represent the government in such cases.

When you stop at a stoplight, the stoplight represents the government regulating the flow of traffic. If we did not have stoplight technology, and if a Kim Davis traffic officer believed that women oughtn’t drive, could she refuse to let a woman pass?

Of course not. Her personal beliefs are irrelevant when it comes to acting as an agent of the government. That brings us to our first distinction: the act of assuming governmental agency versus the act of exercising that agency.

When someone chooses to assume governmental agency, that is the point when they are to let their conscience dictate their ability to be a government agent. They don’t do it once, but every single day. Every police officer, every lawmaker, every attorney general and district attorney, every president and mayor and governor makes the choice every single day to continue to act as an agent of the government.

When it comes time to actually perform the government’s business is not the time to invoke the conscience, unless it is to resign.

The notable exception to all of this is military service, in which forces do not have free choice to continuously evaluate their position.

Now, in the case of this Kentucky county clerk, the State of Kentucky can certainly modify the law to allow someone like her to act as its agent without violating her beliefs. That’s not a problem if done, as the state will continue to recognize the rights of its people. But it must be done first. This is not a situation where the state can just shrug off its responsibilities and pretend it is not the government.

The government and its agents have a duty to the people, which has not been made clear enough if its own agents fail to understand that duty. If you work for the government, when you go to work you act not as yourself, but as all of us, through the filter of the law. If you cannot, you should not.