Censoring fake news on social media presents a slippery slope

By Vivian Roach | Staff Writer

In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, an “infodemic” has also emerged. An abundance of public health information has been circulating around social media platforms — Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube to name a few. In the beginning of the quarantine last spring, lots of information surrounding mandates and information about the virus were published every day. This also meant lots of misinformation, or “fake news” about the virus had gone unedited or fact checked before submission.

In March, Facebook Newsroom tweeted a “Joint Industry Statement from Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, reddit, Twitter and YouTube,” that said they are “jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on our platforms.” They invited other companies to join them as well in this initiative. Social media platforms tagged censored content with similar notifications as, “this post goes against our community standards.” However, some users said they were getting this notification on posts that had no reason to be censored. The “infodemic” has made some platforms use automation to censor content quicker. Now, there are more posts being mistakenly censored with automation, which confuses the public on how to discern between real and fake.

The First Amendment protects our right to free speech, even false speech. Private actors, such as social media platforms, are exempt from upholding our rights under the Fourteenth Amendment’s state action doctrine. This means social media platforms are not regulated by the First Amendment. The use of social media platforms today resembles much of what constitutes free speech and expression — they should be regulated by our freedoms because the implications of restricting speech on the internet are threatening.

The position in which we interact with social media today urgently calls for reconsidering and modifying speech laws. Though the need for a change predated the coronavirus pandemic, only recently did it become a more urgent issue of democracy. Speech on the internet, posting pictures or updating a public profile should be protected because posting pictures, comments or updating public profiles is just as close to protected expressive activities, such as burning an American flag or wearing something expressive.

The ability to interact with posts and participate in conversation within groups is very similar to protected public speech or pamphleteering. Current speech laws threaten our freedom to the marketplace of ideas and the individual self fulfillment when you share your ideas and thoughts. Censorship has a “chilling effect” on the media. It discourages news reporting because of the threat of legal sanction. Especially in the pandemic, disseminating information is critical to public health and safety.

When there is a free flow of information on the internet, professional journalists, public health and government officials are held accountable to disseminate clear and supported information by credible sources. Additionally, users have to also be responsible media consumers. They have to educate themselves to able to discern between fact and fiction.