Why We (Still) Shouldn’t Censor Misinformation
After President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020, a majority of his supporters believed the election had been rigged. Some adopted wild conspiracy theories involving Chinese supercomputers, Hugo Chavez, and state-level Republican officials. These beliefs culminated in an attack on the U.S. Capitol that left five people dead. To make sense of these events, many officials have argued that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter allowed conspiracy theories to spread unimpeded, leading to erroneous beliefs and deadly behaviors. In other words, they blame misinformation for the violence.
But it strains credulity to believe random tweets can lead otherwise normal people to drive across the country and stage an insurrection. That places an undue focus on misinformation itself, rather than on the people and institutions sharing it and on the people who choose to access and believe it. It also seems odd to call for more government intervention into our information ecosystem when government officials—the president, members of Congress—were, in this instance, the biggest purveyors of misinformation.
Since he became a candidate in 2015, Trump and his high-profile supporters in Congress and the media have repeatedly claimed that elections are rigged. Since his loss last year, he has become only more vociferous about this. It should come as no surprise that the person with the biggest bully pulpit in the world was able to convince some voters he was cheated. This is what politicians do: They build and mobilize coalitions. On the other side of the ledger, electoral losers are naturally prone to believing they were cheated, and Trump’s claims only exacerbated this tendency among his core supporters.
Once we account for the influence that politicians have, as well as the dispositions of core audiences, the role of misinformation and mediums of communication in fomenting events like the Capitol riot become highly conditional and much smaller than many are arguing.
Nonetheless, pundits have called for interventions ranging from the benign (more journalistic fact checking) to the heavy-handed (internet censorship, the nationalization of social media). While these calls have intensified recently, they are not new. After the 2016 election, many journalists declared that we had entered a “post-truth” world in which lies, misinformation, and groundless conspiracy theories carried as much weight as statements of fact, if not more. Such sentiments grew more widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The desire that others believe the “right” things and act the “right” way is often well-intentioned. I too would prefer that people not inject themselves with bleach because they heard that it can prevent COVID-19. But designs on others’ beliefs are sometimes little more than expressions of crass sel
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