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We also need to find a cure for this infodemic

Fake news, hate speech and misinformation are creeping through all social media platforms. With more and more people relying on social media as a source for news, there are worries that such content could influence audiences unable to distinguish truth from fact or news from propaganda.

This “infodemic,” as Dustin Carnahan, an assistant professor of communications at Michigan State University, calls it, puts misleading information front and center — adding fuel to politically contentious fires and escalating social issues to the level of crises. 

Where is the line drawn on social media when it comes to hate speech versus First Amendment rights?

“When it comes to the First Amendment, people often forget that freedom of speech refers to government restrictions on speech and does not apply to private entities such as companies. As social media companies are not government institutions, they are able to control their content as they see appropriate.

“However, when considering whether speech should be restricted on social media, there are different philosophical arguments about free speech and the public interest that are often invoked. One view draws from the ‘marketplace of ideas’ argument — itself the impetus for the First Amendment — in arguing that the public interest is best served when all content is visible on social media, no matter how inaccurate, hateful or vile. This position holds that while people can judge content and hold speakers accountable themselves, bad ideas will be shown for what they are, disregarded via discussion and more productive conversations will result.

But another view holds that allowing such content on social media harms the public interest, arguing that the marketplace might not be working on social media as well as we thought. Misinformation can plague public discourse and decision-making, make it more difficult for people to find common ground and even serve as a threat to public health. Further, hateful content is being used by fringe groups to grow their ranks and increase their organization, as evident of the re-emergence of white supremacists and other radical movements.

“Until recently, social media platforms have taken a more hands-off approach consistent with the former view and generally reflective of Silicon Valley culture as well. But they are becoming increasingly aware of the latter — which I think is why you see stronger actions taken against misinformation and hateful and abusive language. How far they will go in these restrictions moving forward will be interesting to watch. 

In these times of crisis, misinformation abounds. Why does misinformation flourish? Does all this fake and hateful news mean that people are hopelessly gullible, their anxiety making them receptive to the most blatant baloney?

Hardly. In many cases, people actually share fake news for fun, or because a trusted friend shared the information. 

Still, even if fake news isn’t as consequential as is often feared, it’s better to be able to spot it (at least to avoid looking like an idiot when sharing on social media). A reliable cue is the source: many successful pieces of fake news circulating on Whats-
App about Covid-19 start with “A friend who has an uncle in Wuhan” or “A friend whose dad works at the Centre for Disease Control.”

Overcoming this initial reaction requires trust: a recognition that whoever is addressing us is competent, and isn’t trying to manipulate us. This is why checking information is so important. Not so much because it helps us avoid misinformation: most of us will only be exposed to a tiny amount of misinformation in the first place.

Instead, checking is crucial to reinforcing our belief in real news, and in sound advice. If you aren’t persuaded by posted information please check as thoroughly as you like, but don’t dismiss good advice out of hand. We must strive to be vigilant, but being vigilant is only useful it if helps us remain open to valuable information.

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