Twitter headquarters is shown in San Francisco, Friday, Oct. 28, 2022. Employees were bracing for widespread layoffs at Twitter Friday, Nov. 4, as new owner Elon Musk overhauls the social platform. Credit: Jeff Chiu / AP

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It’s easy to believe something that’s not true. From conspiracy promoters to the highest court, people intentionally choose to do it.

Take the assault last week in San Francisco on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Investigators have found he was  attacked simply because he is the husband of the outspoken and controversial leader of the House Democrats.

Political differences, no matter how extreme, should not degenerate into violence. Oppose all you want, but your political views should not be reduced to a physical attack.

But the problem goes beyond that. The attack took place and it was wrong, but some try to excuse it by lying. Without any evidence, a well-known  conspiracy promoter pushed the suspicion that Pelosi and his attacker knew one another and there was a fight between them. This lie could discourage GOP sympathy for Pelosi or even make it look like it was all his fault.

Relying on nothing more than this unsupported accusation by a rabid opponent of the Democrats,  Elon Musk last week retweeted it to tens of thousands of people. He concluded, “there is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye.”

Then, Musk, the self-styled “Chief Twit” on Twitter had to give way to Musk, the new CEO of Twitter. After buying control of this social media site, Musk tried to reassure worried advertisers, who dislike controversy, by  proclaiming, that Twitter “obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”

But Musk’s “tiny possibility” says a lot about “free-for-all” statements that appear online in the social media. If a person harbors a bias and can conjure up a theory that might remotely be thought possible by ignoring the facts, they can promote an alternative explanation to the evidence. Spreading falsehoods may turn a situation that might benefit an opponent against them.

With the growth of social media, a kind of dumping ground for opinion as much as a forum for discussion, a tweet like Musk’s could  reach more people in 24 hours than  all the newspapers in America. Unlike the press which is subject to some editorial standards and review, social media allows anybody to say pretty much anything.

The claim is sometimes made that nobody can stop this baseless talk because everybody has the right to free speech. In fact, the  First Amendment to the Constitution only prevents the government from controlling speech, but it says nothing that prohibits a company, say a social media owner, from controlling speech on its own site.

Texas and Florida both passed laws that would prevent social media outfits like Facebook and Twitter from deleting false or inflammatory messages. The states argued that the companies were violating the free speech rights of conservatives.  Federal judges found that the state laws, covered by the First Amendment, violated the free speech rights of the social media companies. The cases are now before the Supreme Court.

Of course, nobody is required to access social media. And the traditional media and watchdogs can reveal untruths when they are spread.

But it’s a different matter when the U.S. Supreme Court chooses to make decisions affecting millions based on false assertions contrary to the facts. It seems to be inclined to do just that on matters relating to race, the most significant issue in U.S. history.

In 2013, the Court  ended federal government preapproval of voting law changes in areas where Black citizens’ voting rights had been limited. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that Black voter registration was high, making protection unnecessary.  

That dubious finding got him where he wanted to go. His decision was like saying that, when crime is low, we don’t need police. That intentionally ignores the effect that a police presence has on crime. Right after the Supreme Court decision,  some states raced to reverse laws that protected Black voters, proving him wrong.

Threats to Black voting access, widely known and understood, were simply dismissed by a court with little interest in civil rights. Last week, the Supreme Court seemed ready to intentionally  make the same mistake. This time the case involves attempts by universities to have a diversified student body, which means Blacks may get some preference in admissions.

The justices, except for Clarence Thomas, seemed to recognize that diversity has educational value. But they wondered how long universities should be allowed to continue to pursue diversity and whether this policy unfairly denies admission to some people.

They ignored the point that, without an effort to promote diversity, it might melt as fast as voting rights did in 2013. Just as then, they were ready to believe something that’s not true – that discrimination and lack of access don’t much matter these days. The fact that the legacy of slavery has not yet been fully resolved simply escaped the attention of the justices.

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.