Social media companies have long been in the spotlight around the increasingly pressing issue of reducing the spread of misinformation, but especially with the decision to ban former President Trump, these platforms have taken center stage. People are demanding answers to heavily debated questions. What responsibility do social media companies have in preventing the spread of misinformation and the incitement of violence? How much should they intervene, if at all, and when is it non-negotiable?
Thinking back to the Twitter Ban
Twitter, one of Donald Trump’s preferred media platforms during his presidency, made a bold move with the permanent suspension of @realDonaldTrump. With riots reaching the U.S. capitol and the country in turmoil a couple months back, Twitter made the executive decision to remove Donald Trump due to policy violations and the risk of further incitement of violence. As expected, this decision hasn’t gone over lightly. And like most things in 2020—and 2021 for that matter—the public response is divided.
Because there are many strong opinions about this event, we decided to run a study and get 315 thoughts on the topic of Trump’s ban and the spread of misinformation. Some of our findings reflect the divide we have grown to expect, but after taking a deeper look, we found that this gap may be smaller than expected in some areas.
We found that 88% of Democrats strongly supported the ban whereas only 22% of Republicans support the ban. Of those who support then ban, they explained that they support banning Trump because “He’s shown that he is a danger to others when he has access to social media” (87% support) and that “His presence online has caused horrible action offline” (84% support).
In a few words, explain why you support Twitter’s decision.
While some believe the ban is essential for preventing danger, those who do not support the ban see it as a “violation of his right to free speech” (76% support). First amendment rights were generally the central issue for respondents who did not support the ban.
In a few words, explain why you do not support Twitter’s decision.
Are social media bans an infringement on First Amendment rights?
The riots in D.C. earlier this year led to a myriad of social media platforms and hosting companies banning Donald Trump and associated platforms for incitement of violence. With regulations from powerful companies occurring simultaneously, some are concerned that these bans are threatening our constitutional right to freedom of speech. However, the first amendment only protects freedom of speech from the government and doesn’t limit what private companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Google can do.
Despite concerns around censorship, some respondents believe that there are circumstances where bans are appropriate. Many think that a social media ban does not infringe on our freedom of speech “when it can lead to violence” (75% support) and when “violations are made” (76% support). Others state more generally that bans are acceptable “when somebody’s words or actions on social media cause detrimental effects to the well-being of other people” (78% support). Overall, respondents indicated that under violent, hateful or illegal circumstances, social media bans are not infringing on their first amendment rights and may be generally acceptable.
Under what circumstances do you think social media bans are NOT an infringement on one’s freedom of speech?
Social media bans are just one move in a nationwide battle against misinformation. The recent actions taken by social media platforms have raised questions about the greater role they could–or should–have in reducing misinformation. In our study, we discovered that the majority of Democrats and Republicans believe that these platforms are at least somewhat responsible for the spread of misinformation. Even 49% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans agree that “Social media platforms are absolutely responsible” for preventing the spread of misinformation.
Although it is still debate around who is most responsible for the spread of misinformation, perhaps an even more pressing question is what should be done to prevent it. Again, we looked to our respondents for their thoughts.
A collective effort for reducing misinformation
When considering best solutions to prevent the spread of misinformation and dangerous speech on the internet, respondents from left and right of the political spectrum supported the statement that “people need to go to trusted sources for their information and not rely solely on what they see on social media” (86% support). This notion was echoed by others who believed that “people should educate themselves” (86% support). Overall, Democrats and Republicans agree that some action against the spread of misinformation can occur at the individual level.
Others suggested steps that should be taken by the major social media platforms such as a “notification on the site to remove posts that spread misinformation including the reason the post was removed” (80% support) and “more active monitoring” (67% support). These statements were generally more supported by Democrats. Others were more concerned with the unreliability of social media platforms stating that “The best thing is just to not believe them” (56% support), which received more support from Republicans.
What do you think is the best solution to preventing the spread of misinformation or dangerous speech on the internet?
Where do we go from here?
Despite the country’s highly divided political landscape, there is significant support from both sides that social media platforms have a responsibility to regulate the spread of misinformation. Although we may all hold a small role in this fight, these social media giants have the power to make a widespread and long-lasting impact.
The violence and devastation the country has faced as a result of misinformation and abuse of these platforms has revealed the urgency for change and risk of inaction. Social media companies should challenge themselves to better monitor for misinformation and intervene before it reaches a mass audience and irreversible consequences. In the meantime, we must look critically at what we see and share on social media in an effort to prevent misinformation and keep our communities safe.