Social media has given a platform for individuals to share their voices faster and to a broader audience than ever before. At our nation’s founding, it would have been unimaginable to predict that anyone would be able to speak at any time from anywhere. This phenomenon has lent itself to the creation of a new type of speaker, a bolder ego unafraid of sharing what is on their mind. In reaction, our government is stuck with a thought-provoking dilemma of what “free speech” truly entails in this day and age. The oratory vehicle that social media has become provides several cultural stresses on the democratic structure, such as an overload of information, the creation of a hive mind and radicalization. Perhaps the greatest threat to democracy, which works in tandem with the aforementioned, is the growing misinformation and disinformation online.
Anyone can fall into the snares of believing and spreading false information. This was evidenced by a study done by researchers at MIT which found that “false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are.” That study becomes even more potent when looking at a mass of individuals, where it was mentioned that “it takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people.” Another study that exemplifies the true might of this swelling issue is done by PEW Research Center which found that “62% of Americans get their news from social media” and “two-in-three U.S. adults (64%) say fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.” These numbers become even more alarming when noticing that this study was conducted in 2016, and one can assume that with social media gaining more influence almost daily, the percentages of adults that receive their news from social media has increased since then. In addition to this, recent controversies such as the 2016 and 2020 elections, the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict have further contributed to the public’s perception of inaccurate information in their daily news consumption.
If speech has lost its value in society and is no longer desired to be truthful, then what exactly drives speech to be productive? The founding fathers, with Madison serving as a preeminent example, believed that speech would be a tool to uphold the democratic structure by allowing people to put forth their best argument and allow society to choose the superior. However, platforms, in the form of social media, have sanctioned speech that is innately worthless with the intent to troll and solicit a reaction. The more salacious a headline, the more engagement it is bound to receive. Not only does this cultivate fake news, but it also changes insights of the general public. Fake rhetoric allows for radicalization and a strengthening of ideals through an echo-chamber. It also may allow for individuals to feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information available and discourage them from participating in the wider political sphere. This problem then breeds bigger issues such as the political polarization that seemingly widens each day. Thus, our democracy is on its way to facing a grave peril.
The question now beckons — which approach should the government enforce to tackle this menacing predicament? To start, it should be noted that the government would be greatly overstepping its power to combat this problem, because it has no jurisdiction over these social media platforms as they are private entities. One should ask themselves if they believe that social media should be held accountable by the government for allowing false information to be spread. Is the problem so dire that it would require the government to encroach in the private sector?
To answer this, there are two salient schools of thought that are worth mentioning. The first of which is libertarianism, which essentially believes the marketplace of ideas should be allowed to occur naturally and be shown deference from the government. Justice Kennedy, who prescribes to this ideology (Fish, Stanley Eugene, “What Is the First Amendment For?), has shown his wariness to the government’s “chilling” speech. On the other side lies consequentialism, which argues that speech should be regulated by the government if the harms outweigh the benefits of the speech. A growing outcry in favor of consequentialism has emerged with false information being spewed across a myriad of social media channels. Consequentialists would most likely believe that the threat posed by misinformation is too hazardous and thus should be controlled by the government.
Personally, I identify more in the libertarian camp. I struggle with allowing a government to have control over censoring voices, as this could eventually lead to the silencing of opposing voices. However, I do think that social media has transformed speech as we understand it and that the government must adjust to our new reality. The government should not have the power to dictate what constitutes “false” information, but perhaps it should put pressure on social media misinformation warning, and I think we should ensure that apps begin to make this the norm in order to address this problem. Regardless if this is the answer or not, something must be done to stop the spread of misinformation. Maybe then people will be able to have more productive conversations about politics and can come to understand their own beliefs on a deeper and more truthful level.
Kelly Harris is a senior at the University of Notre Dame majoring in political science and minoring in digital marketing, musical theatre and Glynn Honors. She is originally from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and resided in Pangborn and Johnson Family Halls. If you wish to reach Kelly with any questions or concerns feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets on Tuesdays at 5 p.m. in Duncan Student Center W246 to learn about and discuss current political issues, and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @bridge_ND.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.