Accuracy matters online, too

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Adam Sullivan, At Liberty

One of the most heated legislative issues of the year reached a climax this week when the Republican Legislature approved a bill to impose a statewide minimum wage.

The legislation is a response to counties like Johnson and Linn, where local government has mandated higher wages. The bill ignited a fierce political showdown between Republican legislators on one side and Democrat local government leaders on the other.

As it so often does these days, a portion of the outrage played out on social media. Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan called out a local calzone shop over the owner’s comments to the media.

“The owner of DP Dough was on IPR explaining why he opposed the minimum wage. I’m now on Facebook explaining why I will never, ever eat at DP Dough! Hope you will join me,” Sullivan wrote.

Right or wrong, it’s rare to see an elected official publicly call for a boycott of a local business. Sullivan’s post sparked its own controversy, drawing a couple of mentions in the news media and dozens of comments online from both critics and allies.

It turns out that Sullivan’s post isn’t precisely true. The owner of DP Dough, Jon Sewell, commented on Iowa Public Radio, explaining the challenges businesses face with a higher wage, but not saying outright that he doesn’t support a higher minimum wage.

When I talked with Sewell this week, he declined to respond directly to Sullivan, except to say that he’d heard from several supporters in response to the controversy.

“We have a history of partnering with various nonprofits in the community. It has been extremely gratifying to have them reach out and support us,” Sewell said.

As an advocate for smaller government, I believe boycotts and free speech are preferable to government mandates like the minimum wage. I strongly support Sullivan’s right to publicly speak out against business practices he doesn’t like.

“I think everyone has an obligation to vote with their dollars the same way they vote with their votes. You can take it to the point of picketing or you can just not go there. There are plenty of places that I already don’t go for various reasons,” Sullivan told me.

Still, I urge public figures to be careful with the facts. The difference between what Sewell said on the radio and how Sullivan described it on Facebook is not insignificant. I would even call it a mild case of fake news.

Media and political hoaxes are seldom completely made up — they typically originate with a morsel of the truth and the details are contorted to fit an ideological agenda. People click because they hope and believe it’s true.

Donald Trump has been called the “Twitter president,” but social media’s impact on politics extends far beyond the Oval Office.

Technology has empowered individuals by giving us a voice and direct access to newsmakers. But technology also facilitates the spread of misinformation and allows us to construct ideological echo chambers online.

Sullivan is no Trump and I’m glad to say we have far more civil and honest politics in Eastern Iowa than in Washington, D.C. But we would all do well to remember that when we speak online, people are watching and accuracy matters.

• Adam Sullivan’s column appears on Fridays. Comments: Sullivan.AB@gmail.com; adam4liberty.com

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