by Nanditha Nagamani Praveen
Image: Roman Kraft / Unsplash
In the last few years, social media has bulldozed its way to being one of the most effective platforms for speaking out on social and political issues, and 2020 was no exception. From the coronavirus pandemic, to the US presidential elections, to the Indian farmer protests, public opinion has vastly been influenced and shaped by a maelstrom of tweets, posts and even TikToks. In this online battle for the upper hand, opinion (regardless of how innocent or deliberate it may be) has replaced the already obscure truth, and in the process sparked a whole new level of social discord and civil unrest in a hyperpolarized world. In the face of this colossal campaign of misinformation and the merciless massacre of truth, who is to blame? Do we seek answers from the people who post this kind of content, the people who contribute to its spread, or the people who create and enable the indiscriminate use of these platforms in the first place – often for their own financial benefits? Whose responsibility is it to pick up the pieces?
You don’t have to look far to see how much the spread of misinformation has wreaked havoc on our world. Outside of even political issues, where the dark motives of megalomaniac leaders have shaped sentiments online, there have been many other cases where people have begun to take opinions from online content as undeniable truths.
Take the coronavirus pandemic for example. A poll conducted by YouGov and The Economist in March 2020 found that 13% of Americans believed that the coronavirus was a hoax. While the lack of belief in the existence of the virus has gone down, there are still many who believe that the US coronavirus death count (nearly half a million now) has been “hyped up” for political reasons. In another paper, published in February 2021, a staggering 48% of Americans seemed to believe that the coronavirus is a Chinese bioweapon.
Studies have shown that these beliefs are fueled vastly by social media, with a study of 22,800 tweets from between September 3 and October 8, 2020 suggesting that some members of the public adapted beliefs in direct response to former President Donald Trump’s tweets, and that social media can be used as “a near real-time data source to capture these changing perspectives.” While Twitter cannot be considered a representative of the general population, it does show that social media’s role in the spread of misinformation is far from insubstantial, and that this rapid dissemination of (mis)information can lead to some serious consequences.
The question of blame comes back: who should be held accountable for the spread of lies?
Aesop’s Fables tell the tale of a group of mice in council trying to find a way to address the threat a cat poses. One mouse proposes the great idea of belling the cat, which, while initially well received, inevitably doesn’t get anywhere because nobody is willing to volunteer for the job. Here, the cat represents the ‘untruths’ that are spreading like wildfire through the internet, leading to unimaginable consequences in society. Are social media platforms and policymakers resigning themselves to the position of an unwilling mouse? Is the concept of “free speech” making them afraid to bell the cat? These platforms need to have the courage to invest in the truth and be transparent about the biases in the information they share. Instead, what we are witnessing is the opposite, where social media sponsors and corporations dictate the information that is being shared to the public to propel their own agendas.
In contrast, there is a Chinese proverb 解铃还须系铃人 (literally means “He who ties the bell has to untie it himself.”) that tells the story of a Buddhist monk, who in response to the query of who should untie a bell tied around a tiger’s neck, states that it is the responsibility of the person who tied it in the first place. This proverb means that whoever creates a difficult situation must resolve it by themselves. Likewise, social media platforms should be capable of holding the person who made a post accountable for an untruth. This proverb represents the idea that the people posting misinformation need to be held responsible for their actions, and the only party truly capable of enforcing this, is social media itself. However, this is clearly not working.
Where do we draw the line, then, between free speech and spreading misinformation? In an ideal world, this line would be clear, but unfortunately, it isn’t. Free speech is defined as “the right to express any opinions without censorship and restraint”, but that does not necessarily mean that those opinions embody the truth. A clear distinction has to be made between facts and opinions. Truth is supported by evidence and data, while opinions do not have this requirement, and are often guided by emotion and bias.
Lately, some social media platforms have started making it possible to flag content that may contain sensitive or biased information. However, this poses the danger of social media filling in for the law in the online world, where democratic processes will cease to apply. This can only be a partial fix to the problem, though, because anyone with the ability to buy technology and motivate app developers can start their own social media platform and make their own rules. Many are afraid this is already happening, especially with the rise of new platforms manned by teams of propaganda-spreading keyboard warriors, that are replacing the former giants of the field.
The solution lies in the establishment of a clear set of rules, developed by a democratic process, between social media platforms and users which, while not infringing on the right to free speech, doesn’t allow for the spread of false or inaccurate information. We know that we can’t expect every person to provide accuracy in every comment, or peer-review every post. However, it is high time governments, media platforms, intellectuals, and every person who is a part of the online community formed a “platform” and looked towards a solution, for a world where the truth is no longer hidden, and guides the way we think and act.