Since the beginning of the digital age, companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have expanded their sphere of influence and power over society. They have shaped the way we receive information and interact with one another. In many ways, media platforms have aided polarization and have been complicit to the rise of “fake news”. Today, the political spotlight is focussed on Facebook for its unwillingness to censor misinformation, specifically, President Donald Trump.
Without the internet and media, misinformation on its own creates a small degree of friction. However, when companies like Facebook leverage misinformation campaigns and hate speech to increase conflict and, thereby, benefit from a higher user engagement level, critics argue that social media platforms have a duty to protect their users by censoring misinformation.
Facebook vs. Misinformation
The US’ First Amendment is, once again, shoved into the political sphere and raises a larger question: Do social media companies have a responsibility to censor misinformation?
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been challenged by the decision to censor President Trump’s posts. As mentioned in a Financial Times article, “[President Trump] thrives on claiming that social media platforms are biased against Republicans and has ordered a review of the 1996 law that gives them immunity from being sued over content that they publish.”
Zuckerberg references “freedom of expression”, which is outlined in the First Amendment, to defend his choice to not censor President Trump. This controversial decision also poses the question: Where do we draw the line between freedom of information and expression and protecting individuals?
Most journalism outlets such as the New York Times, CNN, and the Wall Street Journal will have a code of conduct that they follow if false reporting occurs. Usually news publications will edit the original story and announce any changes made before closing with an apology. This illustrates their commitment to taking responsibility for their actions and valuing the truth in its fullest form, which reaffirms a publication’s integrity.
In the social media age, news is shared not just by journalists, research groups, and nonprofits, but also individual users who don’t necessarily need to maintain a reputable status on the Internet. As a result, society has seen a rise in misinformation or “fake news”.
Misinformation poses a threat to the democratic process. With a wealth of information on the Internet and the existence of echo chambers, the ability to determine what is fact and fiction becomes increasingly difficult.
In regards to President Trump, his posts often make lofty (even false) claims aimed at news outlets, the Democratic Party, and anyone who does not support his agenda. With the ability to comment and the protection offered by screens, users engage in discourse, trolling, and even hate speech, and companies like Facebook leverage this conflict to increase foot traffic and, in turn, their profits.
“What Facebook is doing is purely a business decision,” says Roger McNamee in a Financial Times article.
Facebook, like many other social media platforms, are wary of being pulled further into the political sphere, especially with the upcoming presidential election. However, censoring misinformation is more about protecting users and the democratic process than announcing affiliation to a specific political party.
In the Name of Democracy
Journalism acts as a mechanism to share information between the government and society — an integral part of a modern democracy. Its digitalization allows for greater access to information, according to a 2019 report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
The creation of the Internet gave way to a new sector in society — the Fifth Estate, which encapsulates social media, journalists, and bloggers. Social media and its users carry substantial influence over the general public, such as trends in fashion, humor, and even political ideologies.
Social media also encourages the existence of echo chambers. An echo chamber forms when political beliefs are reinforced or amplified by communication and repetition inside a closed system. In other words, the flow of information, whether it be left or right leaning, is prohibited. This outcome promotes political polarization within a society because it insulates one from rebuttal.
This coupled with misinformation, arguably, can distort a person’s (even a whole community’s) perception of the world. In an echo chamber, false information remains in a closed system; rarely is new or factual information introduced, and so with the help of machine learning a cyclical process begins.
A democracy requires members of society to make informed decisions, and the presence of misinformation, inherently, undermines the democratic process. Social media is not just a platform for entertainment, it has the ability to share information and thus takes on a level of responsibility — protecting users.
Facebook and twitter, along with other social media networks, should censor President Trump and other internet participants when it comes to misinformation. Failure to do so threatens the imperative role of the 5th Estate: to share accurate information and maintain a healthy democracy.
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