Interconnectedness & Responsibility
It is axiomatic that the introduction of the internet radically shaped history and conferred upon society the immeasurable capability for individuals to share interests, connect with others, and constantly learn. Since that breakthrough, the use of social media, in particular, has become a cultural and societal norm. Established with the purpose of effectuating a more streamlined form of communication, this technology evolved into a diverse, user-focused medium that permits individuals to share whatever, whenever, and to whomever.
Popular social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, tapped into this desire to share and developed advanced programs that further stimulate that feeling. A quick scan through Facebook’s principles highlights the benefits of this social media platform: promoting transparency and connectivity, encouraging the freedom to share whatever to whomever the user decides, and emphasizing the importance of social value by increasing trust and responsibility through the user’s use of this platform. Likewise, Twitter’s mission statement, coupled with its values page, similarly accentuates the benefits of its platform: giving individuals the “power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers” and with complete “free expression.” These platforms not only acknowledge the constitutional right of freedom of expression but encourage it in hopes of promoting social capital and innovation.
Understandably, this global interconnectedness parallels great responsibility. For example, defamatory content embedded within certain social media posts generates a variety of issues. Social media users are deemed liable for any form of defamatory or libelous content under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. In response, the First Amendment freedom-of-speech provisions are argued as a defense. However, the rapid proliferation of social media also raises questions as to the extent of the exposure and the difficulty in identifying those accountable.
Such may be exemplified through terrorists’ use of social media to spread propaganda. Considering the wide array of users on social media, monitoring terrorists’ use on these platforms is of the utmost importance. The Brookings Institute echoed this sentiment and found that terrorists “[exploit] social media, most notoriously Twitter, to send [their] propaganda and messaging out to the world and to draw in people vulnerable to radicalization.” In addition to utilizing § 230, congressional representatives have referred to the material support for terrorism statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2339A, to persuade social media companies to be more accountable for dangerous promulgated content on their platform. In response, social media companies have reacted and developed policies and methods to prevent the emergence of terrorist and other criminal organization accounts and content proliferation.
In addition, social media platforms have now become some of the leading sources for news and current affairs. According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, more than sixty-percent of adults get their news on social media. This trend makes sense, under its analysis, for three reasons: first, producing content on social media costs little to nothing and is relatively easy to do; second, the visual appearance of posts on social media is organized according to the platform’s algorithm, specifically designed to encourage more time spent on that platform for that particular user; and third, more users are likely to read the news articles posted by their friends, who most likely tend to have the same political views and beliefs as they do.
With these benefits, however, come challenges. Notably, the spread of “fake news” during the 2016 U.S. presidential election is a prominent example of the dangers associated with consulting social media platforms for current affairs. According to the 2016 study, the average user in the run-up to the 2016 election made approximately three visits to “fake news” pages when on social media or, collectively, 760 million page visits in total. This pervasive and malicious spread of false information is damaging to the overall societal trust of government and truth itself as opinions become more reliable and seemingly genuine than true facts and data.
Social media platforms have a direct effect on the proliferation of “fake news.” Due to the platforms’ accessibility and dissemination speed, false information becomes more populated across various users’ newsfeeds and the legitimacy of available fake news, as reflected by various users’ postings, ironically becomes more reliable. After the 2016 election, Facebook and Twitter started to focus more on their role in the spread of false information by implementing independent “fact-checkers” to examine the series of articles and posts that are spread through their platform.
However, questions arise as to what constitutes “fake news” in accordance with the protections offered by civil rights. Specifically, one may ask how to account for freedom of speech when analyzing false information gives rise to complications in how the U.S. government should interpret the First Amendment. The ultimate question is, as the 2016 study put it, “who should become the arbiter of truth?”