Democracy Vaccines

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. The Act had severe penalties for misbranding and adulteration of drugs. The U.S. imported much of its drugs and had become a dumping ground for watered down or contaminated drugs. The Act was designed to make drugs in America be what they claimed to be. Congress decided that free speech rights did not apply when free speech could lead to a person’s death.

Unfortunately the Supreme Court weakened the Act saying that it could not prevent false claims for health remedies just fake labeling. The U.S. Congress reacted quickly to the Court’s ruling and passed the Shirley Amendment which said that the drug had to do what they claimed to do. The loophole in the Shirley Amendment was that a prosecutor had to prove that the manufacturer deliberately set out to defraud the public. This was difficult to do and, as a result, few manufacturers were found in violation of the Shirley Amendment.

It wasn’t until 1962 that legislation was passed that required drug companies to submit evidence that drugs did what they claimed to do. It seems incredible today that it took so long for our government to act to require truth to claims of something so vital to our health.

The irony in the history of drug legislation is that we are going through a parallel situation today. But rather than involving our individual health, the situation today involves the health of our democracy. Using social media, politicians are perpetuating false claims that undermine our trust in our beliefs in our system of government.

We are conditioned to accept the claims of candidates for office as promises unlikely to be kept. What is new today is the proliferation on conspiracies and claims of misdeeds in the election process. Like what was seen in the early days of drug labeling, our three branches of government seem disinclined to act. The claims of free speech by politicians, when making false claims are not that different from the claims of free speech by drug producers in the early 20th century. We decided that free speech should not apply when false claims could lead to a person’s death. Might a similar case be made about free speech when false claims could lead to the death of our democracy?

Just imagine what it might take to contain the misinformation that threatens our democracy? How do we decide on the acceptable level of misinformation? Just imagine what an FDA-like organization might look like for assuring that our democratic health is preserved? Just imagine how we have evolved to a point where we even need to worry about the potential of elected leaders seeking to destroy our democratic values?

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“A liar begins with making falsehood appear like truth, and ends with making truth itself appear like falsehood.”
William Shenstone (Poet and landscape gardener)

(1)Ground Truth is what is actually happening in society rather than what is being said is happening.

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Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.