Perhaps the Founding Fathers didn’t anticipate the rise of social media, but they had faith in the ability of reasonable people to separate fact from fiction and to collectively make good decisions.
Americans should take heart in that faith, rather than recoil in fear of “fake news” or foreign plots to disrupt our elections via online disinformation campaigns. That’s the goal of our enemies: to sow fear, discord, mistrust.
And while we ought to take foreign interference online seriously, lawmakers should be wary of imposing undue burdens on free speech on social media. At a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on the issue Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats expressed a willingness to start down that slippery slope.
“We’ve identified the problem. Now it’s time to identify a solution,” said committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., in his opening remarks. “Whatever the answer is, we’ve got to do this collaboratively and we’ve got to do it now.”
Committee vice-chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., echoed that sentiment, saying that while social media companies have made progress weeding out fake accounts and making advertising more transparent, “I believe Congress is going to have to act.”
Sen. Warner also released a paper outlining 20 ideas for regulating social media, some of which would be impractical or impossible to enforce.
Testifying before the committee, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey both pledged their cooperation and said they were working on fixes. Notably absent was Google co-founder and parent company CEO Larry Page.
What’s happening on social media is indeed a potential risk to our national security, as some senators said. But fake news and disinformation shouldn’t be conflated with the far more serious threat from state actors who would use computers to disrupt military operations or hack into vital infrastructure such as our electric grids.
Other concerns like privacy invasion and secret data mining could be addressed with greater transparency online and a heightened awareness from social media users regarding the information they share.
But cracking down on social media companies for the content that users share could have a chilling effect on broader speech. It could also be counter to key provision of a 1996 law that protects freedom of expression on the internet by stating that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Facebook and Twitter executives detailed appropriately aggressive initiatives aimed at combating disinformation campaigns and notifying users about questionable content.
Certainly, lawmakers and social media users should still continue to monitor shifts in online communication if new concerns arise. But generally, we should err on the side of free speech.
Most of the examples so far identified of foreign “influence campaigns” are relatively innocuous if not downright inept.
It’s an issue worth watching, however. And there’s little use for the fake accounts and bots that Twitter and Facebook have been attempting to shut down. They shouldn’t be allowed.
But regulation’s potential to put a damper on free speech generally outweighs the government’s need to rein in disruptive forces such foreign trolls or domestic conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones of Infowars, who was recently banned from Facebook and YouTube and who was a conspicuous presence at the committee meeting.
For better or for worse, Americans are free to grapple with the facts and fictions of this brave new world. That brings a tremendous amount of responsibility to think critically and do research. But the remedy to online misinformation could easily be worse than the disease.