How do we manage free speech?

Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene

Ashley Howlett

Ash Howlett is a recent graduate of the University of Leicester where he studied Politics and International Relations, achieving First Class Honours. During his time at University he worked for Labour MP’s Liz Kendall and Fiona Onyasanya. However, US politics is what really interests him, particularly the rise of nationalism in America.

7th March 2021

Nicholas Kamm | AFP

It is easy to forget the struggle of those who came before us in achieving free speech. It is such an important right that it is enshrined in the very first amendment of the US constitution. However, considering recent events in the US, it is not unreasonable to wonder how we might ensure free speech but effectively manage those who tout harmful conspiracy theories, lies and falsehoods which seem to have left the US more divided than ever. As more and more Americans are starting to succumb to wild conspiracy theories of election fraud and international paedophile rings involving world leaders it becomes easy to simply blame social network sites for pedalling this nonsense. But if the state refuses to act, who are private firms such as Facebook and Twitter to tell users what they can and cannot post? The problem is much deeper than that. So how do we stop the spread of misinformation which is beginning to permeate into American society?


Perhaps the most bizarre of these online conspiracy theories is QAnon, which has even gained tacit endorsement from Trump himself by stating its followers were “People that love our country”. This is a group that believes Trump is “waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media” which in a “day of reckoning” will lead to the eventual arrest and execution of many high profile politicians and celebrities. Trump is yet to denounce these claims. This, along with the fabrications of a “stolen” election, has led to an attempt of insurrection, with rioters storming the Capitol and unrest increasingly growing. These conspiracies have no doubt been enabled by social media platforms which, through complex algorithms, encase not only the individuals who believe these conspiracies, but all of us, into echo chambers which then continually reinforce our own beliefs. But Facebook and their tech counterparts do not alone hold all responsibility. 

Some might argue that we should gag the individuals who peddle nonsense to the masses, restricting their right to speak freely, as Twitter has recently done by de-platforming Donald Trump. But this is a dangerous game. We cannot simply run away from those we disagree with, we must listen and try to understand their point of view. Furthermore, in the long run who chooses who can and cannot speak? Twitter? Facebook? Do we really want a right which has taken millennia to achieve to be moderated by unelected, private corporations? Restricting inalienable rights should not be the prerogative of Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies. 


You may be wondering, then, what can we do to stop the crisis of misinformation? It is easy to sit and write about the ills of the world, the hard bit is to fix them. I do believe that “fact checking” on social media is a good step. A study examining the efficacy of fact checking  in correcting the “alternative facts propagated by Marine Le Pen” in the French 2017 Presidential election found that it did have success in “correcting factual knowledge”. However, as I previously stated, private companies should not be making these decisions. Instead, ads, tweets and whatever else can be done on social media should be regulated by an independent government body, much like Ofcom in the UK, and not the private conglomerates themselves. Not only does this take the burden of self-regulation away from tech companies, who have already stated they do not want the hassle, but it also ensures a neutral arbiter is doing the scrutinising. Now this may sound a bit like state intrusion, and have libertarians running for the hills, but how else are we to stop not just political lies, but outright racism, which has continually reared its ugly head, especially  towards sporting stars in the US and UK. Clearly right now not enough is being done, so maybe it is time for the state to step in.


Significant attention needs to be paid to education, particularly on educating people how to analyse information and make rational interpretations on the validity of sources, so they are less likely to believe outlandish theories from unverifiable users on the internet. It is a good thing to question everything you read or hear, nothing should be taken as gospel – if the President can lie, anyone can. This may sound like quite a dystopian education system, built on teaching children to fear all information. And perhaps it is a little intense, but this vital transferable skill can be taught indirectly through subjects like science and maths. Subjects which teach individuals to carry out experiments and equations to prove and disprove a hypothesis. A significant life skill which can be nurtured in the classroom and help to limit the spread of fake news. Currently the US is lagging behind. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy and other key skills ranked the US an unimpressive 38th. This suggests greater attention must be paid to educating future generations in the US, to avoid  “alternative facts” further proliferating in US society.


Moreover, a healing process needs to begin between the warring factions within the US, to end the relentless tribalism which continues to dominate the American political arena. As Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld put it: “Americans on both the left and the right now view their political opponents not as fellow Americans with differing views, but as enemies to be vanquished.”  This current state of mind in the US is feeding the circulation of slanderous news pieces and attempts to discredit the opposition – with or without facts. One of the main culprits is the historically right-leaning Fox News. An example of this tribalistic reporting is Tucker Carlson, a prominent Fox News host. His recent attacks on Democrat Senator Tammy Duckworth, who he described as someone who “actually hate[s] America”, outline the vicious nature of US politics. These persistent tirades on political opponents continue to fracture and disunite the American people, making them less likely to listen to facts, or each other, and instead believe what benefits their ‘team’. Additionally, it is becoming more difficult for consumers of networks like Fox to distinguish between what is  actual news and what is just opinion. These shows are clearly popular, and should not be banned or censored, but much like with social media they should be fact-checked and clearly labelled as what they are – opinion and entertainment segments, not reliable news sources. 


It is not just the Right of the American political circus who are at fault, however. The Democrats are also to blame. Hilary Clinton referring to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables”, as well as the outright contempt and political sneering aimed at Trump from the mainstream news media does little to unite the country. While Carlson and the Democrats will always have their right to disagree with each other, in accordance with their right to free speech, it is unhelpful for them to be so tribalistic and generally nasty. A level of decorum needs to return to the US, for the sake of reasonable debate. In turn, hopefully having someone of different political beliefs in the White House will not be so unbearable that lies, rumour and gossip are spread to oust him, or her.      


These are just a few suggestions as to what could be done to stop the spread of misinformation. They show that while free speech is a right, it is also a responsibility. What people say has an effect, and it is the individual’s responsibility to equip themselves with the tools to cut through the noise created online. But we must give people a head-start, through education and fact-checking. People also need to be kinder in debate and remember the opposition does not intend to destroy the planet. Instead, they are drawing upon their own experiences to provide solutions to the problems that face America themselves and the world. These solutions are by no means an exhaustive itinerary of what needs to be done, far from that; it barely scratches the surface, but it may be a start.

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