By Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D., member of MLN National Advisory Council
Americans face an unprecedented challenge. The internet, which has brought us undeniable benefits and conveniences, also allows us to occupy “filter bubbles” – to inhabit different realities. One result has been a dramatic loss of trust, as people of good will, inundated with misinformation, spin, and propaganda, don’t know how to determine which sources are credible.
Fact-checking sites can be helpful, but only for those who seek them out. The average American scrolling through her Facebook feed during a lunch break is unlikely to stop and check the veracity of most of what her friends post.
There is general agreement that Americans need to develop media literacy. It’s a long-term goal. In the meantime, there are also policy steps we can take to diminish the power of propaganda without doing violence to the First Amendment. The Brookings Institution has suggested establishment of a “public trust” to provide analysis and generate policy proposals that would defend democracy “against the constant stream of disinformation and the illiberal forces at work disseminating it.”
We don’t encounter disinformation only on line, of course. Cable news has long been a culprit. One study found that Americans who got their news exclusively from Fox knew less about current events that people who didn’t follow news at all. Fox is one of several channels that benefit significantly from “bundling” arrangements favored by cable companies. A regulatory change ending bundling would force cable channels to compete for the eyes, ears and pocketbooks of Americans who haven’t yet abandoned cable for streaming.
There are other proposals that would address misinformation without implicating the First Amendment; many address the social media protections offered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Section 230 says 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.” In other words, online platforms that host or republish speech are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do.
Most observers believe that an outright repeal of Section 230 would destroy social networks as we know them, but there is a middle ground between total repeal and pinning our hopes on the willingness of millions of users to voluntarily leave platforms that fail to block misleading posts. Section 230 could be amended by adding a requirement that social media platforms establish an industry standard for detecting and mediating violence, fraud, and abuse. Such a standard already exists for advertising fraud. Regulation could also limit Section 230 protections to content that is unmonetized.
These are only part of the solution as an educated population is still critical, and basic knowledge of our system is lacking. Think about that fictional person scrolling through her Facebook or Twitter feed. She comes across a post berating her congressman for failing to block the zoning of a liquor store in her neighborhood. If our person is civically literate – if she understands federalism and separation of powers – she knows that her congressman has no authority in such matters, and that the argument is bogus.
Basic knowledge of government is a critical component of media literacy to prepare students to participate in our system. It isn’t just civic knowledge, of course. People who lack a basic understanding of the difference between a scientific theory and the way we use the term “theory” in casual conversation are much more likely to dismiss evolution and climate change as “just theories,” and to be taken in by efforts to discredit both.
In other words, people fortified with basic civic and scientific knowledge are far more likely to recognize disinformation when they encounter it. That knowledge is just as important as information on how to detect “deep fakes” and similar counterfeits.
America’s classrooms must be given the resources – curricular and financial – to teach civic, scientific and media literacy. And policymakers must devise regulations that will deter propaganda without eviscerating the First Amendment.
Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D., is Professor Emerita, Law & Public Policy, O’Neill School of Public & Environmental Affairs, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis