Where Do We Go From Here?

In this evening’s 60 Minutes interview, former president Barak Obama pushed back against the notion that politicians and social media are solely to blame for the bitterness displayed during the recent election cycle.

I think he’s being too nice.

Once a politician vomits up some dearly held conviction–let’s say he claims that the the three branches of government are the House, the Senate, and the executive, or that America fought WWII against socialism–it can be reported as news, and people on social media can treat that misguided notion like it’s the truth. This puts social media platforms between a rock and a hard place: they generally claim to support freedom of expression, but they also have recently discovered an aversion to being used to disseminate lies. Platforms can’t have it both ways. Either they don’t regulate the flow of information, with all the concomitant risks, or they try to impose veracity standards.

Unfortunately, since the advent of social media, people have jettisoned facts in favor of beliefs. People now care less about facts than about what they believe to be true–and they appropriate “facts” with the religious fervor of snake handling believers who claim to have found the one true path to God. (I have come face-to-face with a copperhead and found it something less than divine.)

I trust journalists far more than I trust politicians. Journalists have a code of ethics and can face lawsuits when they knowingly publish lies. Politicians can say what they want. “It was rigged.” “The other side cheated.” “I am the winner if you only count legal votes.” Sadly, journalists who report such statements as lies immediately (and unfairly) lose credibility with those who cannot distinguish fact from fiction. These misguided souls report their beliefs as facts on their social media accounts; social media algorithms steer more conspiracy theories their direction; the problem of distinguishing fact from belief grows exponentially worse.

I’m afraid we are past the point of encouraging journalists to save us from ourselves. Politicians have pushed reporters too far outside the circle of trust. So, my tech-savvy students, what kinds of rules should be in place to prevent people from using their social media accounts to spread lies that damage our ability to see each other as human?

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9 Responses to Where Do We Go From Here?

  1. Luke Bowles says:

    Honestly, I think the new additions of fact-checking by large social media companies is a good start. Apps like Instagram check all posts that mention COVID-19 or the election. I saw several blatantly misleading posts flagged as inaccurate. However, I think we need to change as a society where we value the truth and factual information more than propaganda. The problem needs to fixed at the root, not the stem, so I don’t really think social media apps are capable of stopping all misleading information.

  2. Dylan Griffith says:

    I believe the way to prevent the spread of misinformation is to inform. If social media platforms offered information from credible sources, people could see for themselves what is true and what is false. Although there will always be one person who posts propaganda for the fun of it, I agree with Luke that Instagram’s fact-checking aspect is a good way to handle such instances. Also, instead of a little blue check-mark for verified celebrities, social media could institute a little J for journalist so that people could take what they post with a slightly smaller grain of salt.

  3. Conner Davis says:

    To stop the spread of misinformation, the best solution would be to have people fact-check what they read/hear. The biggest rule that people should follow, would be to not blindly trust anything they see on the internet, as there is a lot of false or misleading information. Rather than imposing more rules on what people can post, people should fact-check whatever they see.

  4. Kareena Patel says:

    Personally, I do not think social media can prevent the spread of misinformation. I agree with Luke’s statement. Social media is not to blame for misleading information; instead, it starts with the people who post such things. There may be methods to help avoid inaccurate information, but it mainly depends on the individual. Also, people are going to believe whatever they want despite who writes it.

  5. Scarlett Bedingfield says:

    Like a couple people have said before me, spreading false information on social media is somewhat of a byproduct of the corruption that we already face. People spread information that enforce what they believe, even if they have to twist and manipulate it to fit their desire. Rather than face the facts that could change your beliefs entirely, people will pick and choose what information they believe to uphold their own beliefs. Which is incredibly selfish and says more about the person. In order to truly combat the issue, we should be taught from young ages to seek out our own sources and research rather than accepting the information fed to us. But for now, fact-checkers on social media are the closest that we can get to weeding out false information. The important thing is that we continue to be individual thinkers and fact check things ourselves.

  6. Caleb Jenkins says:

    Well, as with most principles of law, I believe the less rules there are, the better off we are. Free information and the ability to share that information is a great thing, and while you do make a great point on the negative effect these freedoms can have on journalism and the state of the general population’s political belief system, I don’t think the general population should be prevented from sharing whatever they want. However, politicians should be held to a higher standard than normal citizens, as they are the ones representing the population at large. Therefore, as you pointed out in your comparison between the legal ramifications of publishing lies for journalists and the lack thereof for politicians, I believe there should be dire consequences for a politician who knowingly posts blatant falsehoods. Certainly if all the lies President Trump has spouted on Twitter were taken into account during his impeachment trial the results might have been different. But who knows. Such laws, as well as any laws that increase restrictions on politicians, are hard to pass as they require the approval of said politicians.

  7. Mason Pettit says:

    There will always be people who spread lies and opinions as facts, and people will always dig through any amount of true information to find the lies they want to find. If you put fact checks on Twitter then people and politicians claim Twitter is biased and they pay no attention to those warnings. There is no way for us to moderate the entire populace’s thoughts and opinions, but something must be done to stop politicians and journalists from spreading lies. People on Newsmax and OAN are just as bad as politicians, and somehow they avoid punishment for the lies and misinformation they spew. Tucker Carlson jumps through loopholes to continuously lie to the American people and nothing is done. The problem is that our president encourages these lies, and if we give power to the government to enforce the rules on journalists and other politicians, they could use their power to silence their opposition.

  8. Michael Lu says:

    I support all of the statements above me in support of social media fact-checkers. In addition, I also believe that we as people need to do more to stop misinformation. When I’m scrolling through social media, I encounter false information a lot. However, most of the time, I discover that the information is false through users themselves. In comments, I’ll find that a quote is taken out of context, or I’ll find that a political image is photoshopped. Those who are more knowledgeable on a topic have an obligation to inform others of bad information. I also believe that our polarized political atmosphere plays a role in the rapid spread of misinformation. Those who are polarized in some way will want to believe in and will have a greater incentive to share fake information. This is an issue that certainly isn’t helped by the recommendation algorithms of several social media sites. Social media sites are incentivized to polarize their users, and some sites like Facebook may even go so far as to polarize users to extremist content or violent conspiracies. I think that taking steps to address these types of algorithms can also be important to stop the spread of misinformation at its root.

  9. Kate McElhinney says:

    First and foremost, Dr. E, I’m quite disappointed that you somehow managed to misspell the name of our 44th president (it has a C, which oddly enough will be my grade in Film if blogging doesn’t make up for my horrible quiz grade), but I digress. I agree with everything said before me that social media sites should do more to verify factual content. I also think it should be mentioned that, while many sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter do have fact-checkers, the process of hiring such fact-checkers should be a bit more elaborate. AOC called out Mark Zuckerberg during a House Financial Services Committee meeting, saying that some of Facebook’s fact-checkers have been tied to white supremacy groups. Whether this is confirmed or not, I have no clue, but the fact that it was mentioned is concerning. The first step in making progress is to ensure that everything that circulates on social media is factual, especially when it deals with politics. The next step would be to make sure that the people checking such information are reliable. After that, all that can be done is for us to try to be less heavily influenced by the internet and try to dismantle the idea that politicians can say whatever they want with no consequences.

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