I had noticed last week that several supposedly respectable websites I check on had a news link that claimed that Michael Douglas had died. It was so pervasive I googled the news. Nope. Completely false. Total clickbait and a lie. Still, those fake headlines stayed up for days.
On The Daily Beast right now, looking exactly like one of the left-leaning news aggregator’s features, is a story headlined “Rush in Total Ruins.” Then we have the revelation that Facebook profited from accepting links to false stories, paid for by Russian organizations seeking to undermine public faith and trust in democratic institutions. Facebook also has delivered to my page death hoaxes involving Clint Eastwood, Tiger Woods, Diana Ross, Raquel Welch, and Brad Pitt among others. Many of these are phishing schemes.
Websites that claim to be trustworthy and credible cannot agree, for whatever price, to place lies under their banners. They have a duty of due diligence. If they breach it, they should be liable. Even if the law can’t punish them based on content, it should be able to punish such sites for aiding and abetting fraud for profit. How hard would it have been to check whether Michael Douglas was alive or not? How much time would it take to have an intern check to see whether Rush Limbaugh’s career is endangered? Newspapers have always excised discretion regarding ads, accepting their responsibility to keep their readers from being scammed. From what I am seeing now, websites accept no similar responsibility.
There have to be consequences.
Here’s my rule: if a site will accept money to allow someone else to lie to me, then that website will lie to me too. At bare minimum, any website not vetting its ads sufficiently to prevent outright scams and falsehoods must be required to display a prominent disclaimer stating that the site does not vouch for the accuracy of any advertisements or news items posted by another entity, and that readers are on their own. Of course, this will diminish the value of ads from scammers, Russian and Albanian teens, costing the lazy and venal websites income.
Websites will say that it is impossible to vet such ads.
Don’t accept ad money, then. You chose the business. Solve the problem, or do something you can do competently.
I’m sure such a legally mandated warning would be challenged on First Amendment grounds as compelled speech. Maybe it can’t be required by law. However, consumers have the power to punish websites that help others deceive their own readers, and should.