An Oklahoma Watch investigation into the use of social media by some politicians in the state and their political parties reveals a disturbing pattern of abhorrent behavior.

Deploying propaganda for political purposes, of course, is a tool that has been used for decades — the United States has used it to subvert governments overseen by dictators and autocrats. And foreign governments spread false information to undermine democratic principles in countries around the world.

The use of misinformation and disinformation by Russian agents trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was documented by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The committee undertook a bipartisan investigation of Russia’s interference with that election and published its findings in five volumes.

Some Oklahoma lawmakers and party bosses appear to have brushed up on Volume 2, which details Russia’s weaponization of social media and disinformation campaigns. A review of Facebook pages and posts conducted by Oklahoma Watch found local political parties, lawmakers and legislative hopefuls shared at least 85 posts with information flagged as false or misleading.

Those posts, which contained disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and discredited conspiracy theories, were directly shared 2,700 times. Experts say disinformation disseminated by trusted sources and those who hold positions of authority is especially dangerous.

We support the First Amendment and the freedom to exercise the rights it guarantees without reservation. The Free Speech Clause prohibits the government from abridging that right.

But not all speech is protected, nor should it be. And the First Amendment should not be used as a shield by those who recklessly disseminate disinformation that could harm others.

A study published this past summer by the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found there may have been at least 800 people in the world who died due to coronavirus-related misinformation. Researchers who conducted the study estimate another 5,800 people were admitted to the hospital for treatment as a result of following advice posted on social media.

Many of those people, according to the study, died from drinking methanol or alcohol-based cleaning products, which the disinformation led them to believe were cures. Researchers concluded international agencies and government officials should bear the responsibility of combating what they described as an “infodemic” that spread just as quickly as the coronavirus.

That would be difficult to accomplish when government leaders are responsible for recklessly spreading false information. We would hope our elected leaders would demonstrate character of a higher caliber than the investigation by Oklahoma Watch revealed.

If they cannot do that on their own accord, there are laws on the books that punish reckless conduct. Some of the more egregious conduct may warrant such reprisal.

~ Muskogee Phoenix

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