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Unsafe Spaces

By: David Bahr, Zach Graves
March 9, 2017

hree months after the 2016 election, many Americans are still reeling. Anti-Trump protests clog the streets, shrill celebrities indulge in outbursts of shock and disbelief, and newly minted political theory experts call for ending the Electoral College.

Trump’s controversial administration inflames the righteous—particularly in large coastal cities—looking for a scapegoat. Many liberals have zeroed in on social media platforms such as Facebook, which allegedly propelled Trump’s victory by spreading misinformation and extremist thought. This assertion has led to a national conversation about the utility of social media’s platforms imposing stricter filtering or even a blanket ban on offending voices and sites.

The “Fake News” moral panic infantilizes American voters by insisting that they be protected from any sensationalized, misleading headlines that could result in voting for the wrong candidate. Platforms have a legitimate role to weed out spam, but social media wasn’t meant to be a digital safe space. Forcing citizens to abnegate responsibility to think critically about what to believe or how to vote will only harm our democracy.

While mainstream broadcast and print media have been singled out for their roles in keeping Trump in the spotlight throughout the campaign, Facebook has drifted into the crosshairs for its alleged role in tilting the dialogue. As New York magazine’s Max Read explains, Facebook enabled Trump’s victory through “its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news.”

Alt-right leader Richard Spencer embraced a similar version of events. But now the platforms are reacting, he says, by purging people like him. After the election Twitter suspended several accounts associated with the alt right, including Spencer’s (although they eventually reinstated him). As David Frum describes it, this happened without “evidence of harassment or incitement to harass“ and appears to be “motivated entirely by viewpoint.” Twitter is a private company and within their legal rights to ban ideologues like Spencer, but should they? The alt-right’s white nationalism is widely-recognized as morally repugnant. Spencer was even punched in the face by a random protester at the anti-Trump Women’s March. Are we so afraid that our weak-minded peers will fall prey to the alt-right’s distorted ideology that we have to censor them? Is it not better to expose their hateful ideology to democracy’s open-air marketplace of ideas?

Even if the American electorate is politically ignorant, does this occasion their protection from controversial viewpoints? As Georgetown University’s Jason Brennan observes, “our individual political influence is so low that we can afford to indulge biases and irrational political beliefs.” Political ignorance is perfectly rational, since our individual votes won’t determine the outcome. Additionally, politics is inherently tribal. As Brennan notes, “We are biased to assume our group is good and just, and that members of other groups are bad, stupid and unjust.” It’s not hard to see the proliferation of fake news as a product of confirmation bias. People share it because it reinforces their beliefs and tribal tendencies. Platforms like Google and Facebook are designed to cater to what we want to see (creating a so-called “filter bubble”). The extent to which fake news really does sway undecided voters, then, is unknown.

But let’s assume gullible people decided the election. Do we really want our news curated and filtered by the same people who allegedly suppressed conservative websites earlier this year? Or those who collaborate with authoritarian regimes to censor journalists and dissenting voices? Social media has become a significant open forum for our democracy. Progressives call for intermediaries to instigate censorship at the same time they decry the “fascist” in the White House.

For his part, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is cautious about his platform’s role in filtering content, contending that:

This is an area where I believe we must proceed very carefully though. Identifying the "truth" is complicated. While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted. ... We must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.

The line between “real” and “fake” isn’t clear. Hyperbolic opinion writing and misleading clickbait headlines are a staple for major media outlets. That’s what sells.

In The Washington Post’s “guide for detecting fake news,” they suggest savvy readers should see if “the article is from a legitimate website,” “[r]ead the article closely,” and “[s]crutinize the sources.” But what the Post misses is that you should do the same for every website, including theirs. Nor are other prestigious news sites immune from publishing stories that get key facts wrong, or are outright fabrications.

The business of sorting out real news and commentary is highly subjective, and prone to human error and biases. The President has even taken to Twitter with his own narrative about what the “fake news” problem really is.

Fundamentally, if you believe people are too dumb to be exposed to the idea that the moon landing was faked, or that Mike Pence underwent gay conversion therapy, that may be a good argument to limit suffrage. But imposing stronger application-level content filtering would be unlikely to produce the desired result.

Perhaps fake news is all part of Vladimir Putin’s grand scheme to undermine American democracy. As The Washington Post writes, the spread of fake news may be part of “a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign” aimed at electing Trump. This campaign also included more aggressive measures, including cyber-attacks on U.S. election systems and political organizations such as the Democratic National Committee. This is hardly unprecedented. Indeed, Russia has employed so-called “active measures” or information warfare techniques for decades. It may also just be some teenagers who figured out a way to get rich quick. Nonetheless, if Putin really was behind it, this is a serious issue best left to national security experts and policymakers, not to social-media platforms.

We may deplore the propaganda of the alt-right or the ctrl-left. But the answer isn’t to silence but to confront and ridicule them. Eventually, we will move to a decentralized network with no central arbiter. In the meantime, platforms should stand up to the mob—and to governments—and have a light touch in filtering their content for truthfulness. Approaches like Facebook’s crowd-sourced reporting of spam or misleading content, or Google’s removal of bad actors from its ad network, are preferable to delisting stories based on the determination of a central authority.

The commotion over fake news obfuscates a more fundamental issue: voters must be prepared to understand the uses and abuses of the democratic process, where a cacophony of voices influences the proceedings in ways that are often unedifying. In an ideal world, citizens would develop the critical faculties needed to confront controversial voices, question the content they read, and assess the media’s political role. In practice, this means that regarding individuals as capable of responsibly wielding the powers entrusted to them is the only hope for making this democratic ideal become true, or at least truer. To believe otherwise is to invite a variety of calamitous interventions.