The Age of Propaganda, Misinformation, and Freedom of Speech

This article was originally published on June 15, 2020.

Ever since elected in congress, Trump has used Twitter as a platform to voice his often controversial opinions. This past week, however, after Twitter flagged one of his tweets regarding protesting, he accused them of meddling in the 2020 election. In response, Trump is trying to revoke Section 230, which prevents lawsuits against tech companies that censor some content users post. However, this calls into question government power and free speech.

The rise and globalization of technology/social media has seen many positives but has become ground for many politicians seeking to gain advantage or spread propaganda. The Chinese government, on numerous occasions, have been caught creating twitter bots that are designed to spread misinformation about COVID-19. With Section 230, Twitter can delete information like this, to prevent the spread of misinformation. However, if revoked, Section 230 gives the government ground to control social media and what we can post. This is a violation of the first amendment, which allows freedom of speech. This argument can be used both for and against repealing Section 230.

Facebook takes the other side of the argument. Mark Zuckerberg has said, “…we continue to say that [Facebook] we are not the arbiter of truth.” Zuckerberg suggests that as a company, they should not be the ultimate authority of what users can or can not say. This is substantiated further when he says that if the company were to make that decision, it could be biased. Constitutionally, this also makes sense as censoring what someone writes could be considered a violation of free speech. (If tech companies were to censor/block some information, they legally cannot be pursued) Although Facebook abides by this principle most of the time, they have blocked misinformation before.

In this age of political advertising and ad targeting, what is the optimal solution? On one hand, if social media platforms are not allowed to censor any information, this could lead to purposeful, political ad targeting to benefit a certain political party. For example, Republicans could create propaganda advertising a false election date to minorities. (Minorities are significantly more likely to vote for Democratic candidates) On the other hand, unregulated social media platforms can hold power over the voices of the people, by becoming arbiters of truth. (Also note that Democrats have been lobbying for the regulation of social media in terms of what they can do, but Republicans have been relatively mute until Trump’s tweets were censored à This shows bias towards trying to favor their own agenda instead of the people’s agenda) A proposed solution instead of completely repealing Section 230, which can give the government unchecked power regarding speech, guidelines should be enforced on social media platforms. Enforcing guidelines regarding blatant misinformation without the presence of facts, etc., can narrow down what counts as political arbiting. Furthermore, if companies were to violate this policy, a lawsuit could be pursued.