Conspiracy theories and misinformation have run rampant during the COVID-19 pandemic, threatening both public safety and confidence in public health measures. Facts have been contorted, misconstrued and deliberately thrown out of context. Data within various scientific studies have been cherry-picked and used to further an agenda, often without evaluating the entire context of the article. Even more damaging is the ability for this misinformation to disseminate like wildfire on social media in a matter of seconds. Despite the efforts of social media websites to mitigate misinformation, the internet remains a force almost impossible to be reckoned with.
20% of Americans (1 in 5) age 30-44 years old, and 13% of Americans aged 18-29 believe that the U.S. government is using the COVID-19 vaccine to microchip the population, according to a poll performed by YouGov and The Economist. Poll demographics showed that non-college educated, lower income males in the south and west were more likely to believe that the conspiracy was ‘probably true’, according to the poll.
Even more shocking was the source of these conspiracies. The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a UK non-profit organization, found in their investigation that the majority of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation originated from 12 social media websites after analyzing 812,000 Twitter and Facebook posts. The investigation found that the 12 online personalities were responsible for 73% of all anti-vaccine content.
Social media sites have responded quickly (or in the case of Facebook, more slowly) to begin regulating content, much to the outrage of some who decry that it is a breach of their freedom of speech. Others see the regulation of social media platforms as the only way to combat these conspiracies that threaten public safety.
The argument that social media regulation infringes upon one’s freedom of speech is without merit, however. Current legal precedents have established that the First Amendment applies only to the government’s ability to limit free speech. Specifically, congress can make no laws that restrict the ability of free expression. These laws do not extend to private persons or companies, who are allowed to run their platforms at their own discretion.
So, is this solution for misinformation? It could be argued that this type of censorship could lead conspiracists to stray further into the fringes of extremism. Furthermore, there will always be some platform to disseminate misinformation on the internet, such as Donald Trump’s newly announced website, Truth Social, touted as a “safe haven” for free speech. The website, created in response to his lifetime ban from Twitter for his role in the incitement of violence at the US capitol, is set to launch within the month. The only rules of the platform are that users are prohibited from speaking negatively about the platform or its leadership—most likely meaning Donald Trump himself.
Before Truth Social that platform was Reddit, which until June of this year was wrought with thousands of subreddits full of racism, misogyny, misinformation, conspiracies, anti-Semitic and Islamic content, and at times extreme violence. According to a Southern Poverty Law Center report published in 2018, ethnic cleansing, the mass killing of members of an unwanted ethnic group or religion, was discussed extensively on the platform. Reddit deleted thousands of forums on the site earlier in the year following a public backlash.
Some form of social media regulation should and will likely always be necessary as the internet continues to dominate in our society. Without this regulation, it is hard to foresee any other real solutions to misinformation and other issues such as hate speech, which have real life effects on the health and safety of Americans and the general integrity of society.
However, this should not be viewed as a long-term solution and will not combat the root of the issue. To have a functioning democracy, well-informed and educated citizens are required—individuals who value truth and are able to think logically and discern potentially harmful ideas. This is the only true way of combating misinformation for good. Individuals must police ideas themselves in a society where freedom of thought is valued. We are ultimately responsible for the trajectory and climate of our country and it is up to us to think critically and challenge anything that we see and hear on the internet. The long term solution has to start with us.