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In the Know: This fake news is frightening

You may remember a brief news item earlier this year about Sen. Kamala Harris, one of California's two senators. The blip on the news was that she was not qualified to hold office because she was not a U.S citizen; the blip said she was born of immigrant parents in Canada.

The news item was actually posted on Twitter by a 21-year-old California man, who calls himself a "political and corporate intel consultant." He considered the posting a success because he figured about 15 to 18 percent of the people believed it. It was not true.

He told USA Today he has 186,000 Twitter followers. The power comes in having his posts passed on to other networks or followers by those who follow his posts. It could reach many more people fairly quickly.

The young man was featured in a Feb. 26 article in USA Today as an example of how social media can be used to influence people's opinions. This was a major story in the paper. It was spread over three pages and took up the space of nearly two full pages.

It was not his first fling in the business of posting fake news. He posted an item that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was dead or in a vegetative state shortly after her cancer surgery earlier this year. And he posted a sexual assault item about Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller just before the midterm elections last fall. The alleged victim told USA Today that it was not true.

He is busy working on plans for the 2020 elections. He told USA Today he plans to create "enormous left-wing online properties and use those to steer the left-wing votes in the primaries to what we feel are weaker candidates compared with (President Donald J.) Trump."

It doesn't matter what political leanings you have, that should be frightening. Because if one young man is doing it to benefit one party or candidate, one can (and some probably are) doing it for the other party or to favor or disparage individuals or groups with a particular position on a specific issue.

Facebook, Twitter and others faced quite a bit of blowback after the 2016 elections. U.S intelligence agencies agree that Russian hackers used fake accounts to post fake news items on Facebook and Twitter. Both have been working on trying to prevent more fake news distribution but, as the USA Today story points out, it is still easy to do.

The USA Today story quotes Stanford Law School professor Robert Weisberg as saying some of the man's actions might be construed as obstruction of justice or conspiracy or violate some state statutes but now they probably fall into a legal "grey area."

"The whole thing smacks of illegality and nefariousness and deception, but it still needs to have an anchor in criminal statue," Weisberg said.

A well-informed electorate is a vital part of our democratic society. Deliberate attempts to spread misinformation about any candidate or issue should be something that bothers all of us.

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John Stone is the former mayor of Glenwood and former publisher of the Pope County Tribune and Starbuck Times. In the Know is a rotating column written by community leaders from the Douglas County area.