The culture of online politics promotes false stories – let’s control them

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This becomes increasingly more concerning with the realization that, in the modern age, most of our discourse exists online. And it’s this incendiary environment that has opened the door for the current fake news crisis. We can understand fake news as falsified or misleading information, packaged as credible news source, that gets circulated as if it was real; often, fake news is spread with a particular agenda in mind.

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Some may argue that there exists an obstruction to this proposition: freedom of speech and press is essential to a functional democracy. However, this criticism falls flat. For example, the social media platform Facebook allowed radical conspiracy groups like QAnon to manufacture outrage, plan, and eventually organize offline as they did on Jan. 6 during the insurrection at the Capitol.

The internet is a public forum, but it is not publicly owned — it’s owned by megacorporations that do nothing to ensure the information they circulate is even correct. These companies are motivated by profit and user satisfaction, not truth. Fake news is able to pick up traction because of negligence on the part of the social media platforms and search engines that continue to be complicit for the sake of profit. Companies may actually, in fact, have an incentive to look the other way — or worse, to actively promote such content. Social media platforms want users to stay engaged with their content as long as possible, and so they use computer algorithms to recommend engaging content. Algorithms with this express purpose will steer users down extremist rabbit holes, effectively radicalizing them, to increase company profit. Currently, platforms like Facebook or Twitter aren’t held responsible for the disinformation they promote — but they should be.

Story Highlights

  • The current political climate has become even more self-aggrandizing, a kind of democracy-theater that is seemingly dependent on likes and retweets and soundbites and memes and catchphrases, and it’s derailed the way we engage with discourse in the age of the internet. Political tribalism has ruined how we interact with policies; hyperpartisanship and polarization is only escalating on the internet as each user is always trying to outdo the other in manufacturing outrage; civil discourse, especially online, is no longer an earnest engagement with ideas.

  • The reactionary and sensationalist political culture on the internet is tremendously exacerbating the problem. A 2018 study on Twitter, conducted by three scholars from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that fake news was primarily spread by retweets from users, not bots, that would share the misinformation because it was novel or controversial. The fast-paced, like-share-and-follow environment of social media has led to a new way of interacting with politics; ipso facto fake news — especially with a political agenda — is flooding the newscycle. It’s incendiary. It’s exciting. It’s “retweetable.” It’s no wonder fake news is degrading the foundation of our civil discourse online: democracy hinges on an informed public, not a disinformed one. There’s no single answer to a sociocultural issue this expansive and pervasive, but there are regulation standards we can work toward.

Would it be oppressive if Facebook shut it all down? The Constitution says no. In the Supreme Court case Dennis v. United States (1951), the court decided that speech from a person or group that poses a threat to the security of the nation is not protected under the First Amendment; many of the fake news stories currently in circulation would qualify. Even without this constitutional precedent, this isn’t about free speech of the individual and what they post; it’s about what the platforms choose to do with them. Our current political situation online isn’t promoting earnest stewardship of truth; in fact, it’s an obstacle to civil discourse and democratic function. So let’s regulate it. 

Maya Chamberlain is a local 12th grade student at Reno High School.

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