Last year, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, in his speech to the Anti-Defamation League, argued social media companies have a moral obligation to address fake news on their sites, namely “hate conspiracies and lies.”
Fast forward to 2020, where it has become painfully clear hate speech is not only allowed, but welcome on social media. As the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” explains, when someone clicks on an article, meme, tweet, etc., similar content continues to propagate, leading to an infinite amount of related content on that user’s feed. For example, when a teenager opens a conspiracy theory meme, they will continue to see posts that support the same theory, regardless of whether it is true or not.
According to the Pew Research Center, 18% of all Americans use social media as their primary news source. This may not sound like a significant portion of the population, but broken down by age, over 40% of Americans ages 19 to 49 get their news from social media.
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This means when choosing between print, radio, network, cable and local TV, a dedicated news website and social media, social media destroys every other category. If over 40% of our most politically-active citizenry is consuming information that could be false or misleading, shouldn’t we want to ensure everyone is reaching for accurate and ethical sources?
Recently, the ADL has hit their stride on inspiring government regulation of media giants, and now companies like Twitter and Facebook include pop-up messages which warn against false information on posts. This is a step in the right direction, but people will not choose to alter their information channels without stricter measures. The federal government may need to institute regulations similar to anti-trust laws to hold companies accountable for the internet’s integrity.
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In 1890, the first anti-trust laws were enacted to break up railroad, steel, oil and coal monopolies in the U.S. to allow for a fair market economy. Since only a handful of these companies were in control of entire industries and exports, they were extremely influential politically, leading to a corruption of government as company interests controlled policy.
But, with the enforcement of anti-trust laws, competition increased within each industry, and journalists and activists worked with politicians to create ethical standards for American companies, under which industrialization was able to flourish. This is exactly what must happen in 2020. Unless we regulate social media or today’s monopolies, we will continue to suffer from unethical online behavior while media moguls profit.
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University of Wisconsin students are highly politically active on social media and on campus. From last May to today, we have preached to #SupportLocal businesses, we have encouraged self-education on race and privilege, and we have stood against voter suppression. It is imperative we now advocate for media literacy within the American population. This is not an issue of First Amendment rights. Everyone deserves objective news and information. If we continue to allow media companies to oppose regulation of their social networks, a portion of our country — and undoubtedly our student body — will continue to have the wool pulled over their eyes.
False narratives like QAnon or arguments against wearing a mask during a global pandemic exacerbate the information divide in this country. If we want national unity, it must start with social networks. Though democracy is built on the freedom to difference in opinion, the foundations of this discourse should be built upon reliable, truthful information.
Emma Axelrod ([email protected]) is a junior studying political science and journalism.