The breadth and impact of social media can scarcely be exaggerated. In less than a decade, it has disrupted journalism, influenced global politics, and altered commerce by providing a platform for instantaneous global communication. One big problem: social media does not distinguish between fact and fiction. This has frightening implications that have already surfaced.
Social Media Lacks Fact Filters
Social media is rapidly replacing traditional media outlets. A recent research poll conducted by Pew found that 62% of Americans get their news from social media. It is estimated that 75% of Americans have social media apps on their mobile phones. This is not restricted to the US of course; social media is a global phenomenon. Facebook has approximately 1.8 billion users. YouTube, Twitter, and other social media outlets, likewise, are rapidly increasing their global footprint and user base. What happens in one corner of the world can be read, heard, and seen almost simultaneously in another.
What social media does not communicate is whether the image, video, or story is real or staged– misinformation and fact coexist. Public opinion can be easily manipulated by using misinformation to promote an agenda. Absent filters that separate fact from fiction, social media can become the most powerful propaganda tool the world has ever seen. This poses an existential threat to democratic societies and the rule of law.
The recent US election is illustrative. During the latter stages of the campaign, there were as many fake articles shared on social media as stories in mainstream sites like The New York Times and Washington Post. What passes for ‘news’ is often fabricated. In a world that increasingly relies on social media as its information source—in lieu of reputable journalism where fact checking is seminal—news and propaganda are often indistinguishable. Christian Amanpour, a respected journalist admonished: “journalism faces an ‘existential crisis,’ not just because of Trump’s attacks, but also because of the rise of fake news sites, and the increasing difficulty of distinguishing fact from fiction on social media.”
The Role Of Lawyers
Lawyers have long fought to preserve a free press and to defend its vital whistleblower role. Whatever failings and biases traditional media has, it distinguishes fact from falsehood. With the rapid eclipse of mainstream journalism by social media as the predominant ‘news’ source, lawyers must broaden their defense of a free, vigorous, and whistle-blowing press. This requires that they advocate for social media filtering mechanisms designed to expose misinformation cloaked in the robe of fact. Without rules and guidelines in place, social media is a rogue platform with nuclear capability.