Free speech should require you say something

Shortly after the conclusion of the uniquely contentious 2016 Presidential election, Buzzfeed released a disturbing report on the prevalence and popularity of fake stories related to the election.

You may have seen this chart somewhere.


The chart describes the shares, reactions, and comments for the top twenty fake election stories and the top 20 stories originating from actual news services in the run-up to the election. In the critical period before the election, fake stories generated more “engagement” (the term Buzzfeed used to describe their composite variable). A large proportion of the popular fake stores were pro-Trump or anti-Hillary (17 of 20) and this disparity in combination with the contentious election led to public outcry directed at Facebook and concern that the public has been manipulated by the content they encounter online. Take a look at the article for links to some of the fake articles.

In an era in which social media has become a major part of the battlefield for politics, the credibility of content raises serious questions related to how voters make decisions (a similar NYTimes story on twitter bots and fake information). Given the outlandish comments made by the candidates, perhaps no one should be surprised. Social media promises to open political conversation to everyone at low cost, but more and more the opportunity for individuals is overpowered by the promotion of falsehoods.

Social media users are partly at fault. Some months ago the Washington Post described a study demonstrating that approximately 6 of 10 individuals posted a story consisting of gibberish. The implication posted stories are often not read by the individual recommending the stories. Consider this in combination with the Buzzfeed study and consider how this works. As the election neared more and more individuals made their personal decision and were attempting to influence others. It seems likely it was assumed more extreme stories would be more persuasive. The titles of articles were likely as far as many so motivated to influence got and sharing is so easy. No fuss, easy, and completely fabricated. It is difficult to know if anyone really read these articles, but the titles may have provided the message.

Facebook and other services question whether popular fake news had any impact on voting behavior, but promise to address the problem. Fake news may be protected as free speech, but some ad providers say they will not honor ad revenue from the sites.

As educators, we go on and on about the importance of information literacy. We try to teach learners what to look for and how to be critical thinkers. Here is what I think is a new concern. The issue with social media is a little different than the issue with search. It is one thing to find resources on your and then evaluate the credibility of these resources, but this is different from the challenge of encountering resources endorsed by someone you may trust. I wonder if this difference between found and endorsed resources has been considered.

I am beginning to develop a personal perspective on this problem. I think sharing is far too easy. Amazon has a thing with product reviews that indicates whether the reviewer is known to have actually purchased the product. It is too bad that there is no way to indicate whether a shared source has actually been read. My recommendation would be to avoid any recommendation that does not include some message of justification from the individual promoting a resource. Free speech should at least require you say something yourself.