In light of President Trump’s ban from Twitter after the deadly riot at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, the Northwestern University Political Union debated social media companies’ roles in regulating political content on their platforms Tuesday night.
The attendees voted 11-5, with six abstenations, on the resolution after they finished their discussion, finding that social media companies hold at least some responsibility for the content published on their platforms. Weinberg second-years Sophie Gilbert and Zack Lori took on the roles of primary debaters for and against the resolution respectively.
“This is a distinctly political issue,” Gilbert said. “A big problem is that right now fake news is basically rewarded on social media.”
Gilbert pointed out that misinformation generates more engagement than factual news, creating motivation for individuals to further spread lies and less motivation for social media platforms to regulate content.
She emphasized the recent NBC and Buzzfeed News investigations into Facebook that found that the platform ignored the judgment of fact-checking partners and chose to penalize flagged pages using their own discretion in fear of political blowback or losing revenue.
“A policy that is specific in what it takes down and transparent about evidence on why it took things down would keep social media companies accountable, making it an ideal system of regulation that reduces the harm that political misinformation can cause,” Gilbert said.
However, according to Lori, the same regulations Gilbert believes will halt misinformation come with negative consequences.
“I think that instead of people just not spreading misinformation, what instead will happen is that people will stop using mainstream social media platforms,” he said.
Lori highlighted how some radical conservatives shifted from Fox News to Newsmax after Fox News began rejecting Trump’s claims of a fraudulent election. He believes that a similar shift would occur if social media were censored.
“You just end up with a more fractured internet,” Lori said, “If people aren’t even on the same website as each other, that’s just going to make it even worse.”
In addition to debating the responsibility of social media companies in the censorship process, the Political Union discussed how the First Amendment ties into misinformation and hate speech.
“We want an environment in which maximally many ideas can be discussed as possible,” said Bienan fourth-year Sachin Shukla. “From that perspective… if [hate speech] is what’s stopping people from showing up to Twitter and Facebook and sharing their ideas, then that’s a violation of free speech.”
Although there was discourse regarding the line between free speech and misinformation, the majority of attendees agreed that while individuals deserve the right to free speech on social media, posts that directly incite violence should be removed.
Ultimately, attendees agreed that social media misinformation remains a prevalent issue in society. Whether social media companies diligently censor content on their platforms or not, Political Union members stressed that individuals must be aware of the bias and misinformation in their feeds.
“We don’t have any choice but to trust media sites we get our information from,” Gilbert said. “It’s important to take extra steps to think what you’re looking at before you retweet it or share it.”