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When I think of possible ways to fairly combat real “fake news,” I immediately think of the courts. Note that the term only fairly applies to what President Trump and his minions maliciously spead, not what mainstream media outlets generally truthfully report.

I don’t evoke the courts because I necessarily think “fake news” in certain, extreme scenarios should be deemed illegal (which I do think), or that infractions should be adjudicated in the courts (which I also think).

No. It’s because other even less damaging “free speech” is already deemed criminal in our judicial syustem. Why not also indict official, malicious, weaponized mendacity that causes grave consequences? And adjudicating such acts, if pursued, would reasonably require the exact same determinative processes the U.S. judiciary employs to identify truth in all civil and criminal cases in courts of law. So a just system is in place to indict such behavior.

After all, libel and slander laws already hold predatory liars legally accountable for the intended and unintended human damage their recklessness inflicts, whether their intent is ostensibly ironic or satirical or not. How should what the president is now doing and has done in conjunction with unprincipled pols, deluded supporters and right-wing media attack dogs be any different?

Antagonists argue that because of American free-speech guarantees, censoring “fake news” — even if it’s verifiably false and potentially damaging — would be unconstitutional. End of story.

But how is it essentially different to, say, charge President Donald Trump with criminal negligence and abuse of power for continuously and publicly claiming (against virtually all scientific and expert public-health findings) that Covid-19 harms “almost no one,” than is charging a person spreading ruinous lies about someone for being, say, a pedophile, and implicitly urging violence against them?

In both scenarios, false speech is used in ways that can have disastrous repercussions for people — or, in the case of Trump’s mendacious dissembling, in fact has already contributed to many, many more citizens dying from the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. than would have if the he had urged aggressive push-back against the disease early on (as experts pleaded). As of December 22, nearly 18 million Americans had been infected by the virus; 322,782 had died from it.

Mendacious denial by the president and his minions of the dangerousness of the pandemic in America has severely exacerbated its destruction and the breadth of misery it has spread. A best, many tens of thousands of lives would likely have been saved if the federal government had chosen to confront the virus head-on from the get-go.

The U.S. could have prevented roughly 36,000 deaths from COVID-19 if broad social distancing measures had been put in place just one week earlier in March, according to an analysis from Columbia University,” National Public Radio (NPR) reported in the spring. “Underlining the importance of aggressively responding to the coronavirus, the study found the U.S. could have avoided at least 700,000 fewer infections if actions that began on March 15 had actually started on March 8. The U.S. currently has more than 1.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, and more than 93,000 people have died from the disease, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.”

That’s just one week. Now it’s nine months, and the president is still not emphatically urging face-mask wearing and social distancing.

A new model from the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts U.S. deaths from Covid-19 will top 562,000 by April 1 as the virus continues to rage unabated across the nation. It didn’t need to be this awful.

The tragedy continues to unfold even as the president obsesses over overturning the 2020 presidential election, despite every state certifying its votes confirming that Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president on January 20 — and after more than 80 judges in some 50 lawsuits filed by Trump contesting the count have been tossed out as meritless.

If such irresponsible, reckless, self-serving speech that gravely endangers American citizens and our democracy is not criminal and legally actionable, what fairly is? Read this NPR report, “The Toll of Conspiracy Theories: A Voting Secuirity Expert Lives in Hiding,” about how Trump-fanned GOP lies targeting state election officials and top executives of 2020 vote-counting equipment companies resulted in a slew of death threats, causing many officials and their families to move to undisclosed locations for safety.

American GOP leaders are pussyfooting around all this threatening, destructive mendacity by focusing not on the president’s appalling malfeasance but on how to blunt Russia’s dissemination of election-related “fake news” propaganda that also endangers the nation (and has since 2016). Congress is half-heartedly looking into ways to hold social media companies like Facebook and Google accountable for monitoring foreign ads and reporting who pays for them. State education authorities — California and Washington are two — are more on the right track, considering ways to institutionalize teaching students how to effectively sift fact from fancy in the media information they digest, the Poynter Institute reported this month.

Europe is being equally limp-wristed about weaponized disinformation, also in part emanating from Russia. In its final report on misinformation issued in mid-March, the European Commission recommended better education so people and institutions can better spot mendacity — but not “regulating” against public untruths.

If education alone were the answer, 74 million people would not have voted in the 2020 for Donald Trump, who professional fact-checkers continue to point out has an infamously “strained relationship with the truth.” Which is actually a generous appraisal.

“Indeed, per The Washington Post fact-checker database, President Trump has told 20,000 “false and misleading” claims through July 9 of this year – an astonishing average of nearly 16 false or misleading statements a day,” Real Clear Politics reported.

Certainly, it’s very important to better educate adults and, especially, children, how to better identify truth amid the blizzard of lies now swirling about our social-media-saturated culture. But without the hammer of legal consequence, I have little hope education will do the trick. And we don’t have time to wait for hopefully more skeptical kids to grow up.

Consider that roughly half the country now believes the Covid-19 pandemic is at best overblown and very likely a hoax, that Donald Trump “won” re-election despite “widespread fraud,” that Russians have not been assaulting our electoral process with damaging propaganda since Trump was first elected, and that Joe Biden is not only a senile serial sex abuser but deeply involved in criminal business shenanigans with his son Hunter.

Keep in mind that there is zero evidence — zero — to substantiate any of these dark, right-wing fantasies. But people are giddily enthralled with them, nonetheless, to the point of dangerous mindlessness. It’s a kind of cult insanity, in my view.

To hell with unbridled “free speech” if this is what it gets us.

New laws prohibiting the president’s brand of subversive Hitlerian disinformation is the only answer. If we can adjudicate criminal libel and slander, we certainly should be able — with enough political will — to do the same with destructive official mendacity.


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...