In the Economist article, “Policing Propaganda,” one of the major threats to democracy stems from one of its key supporting agents, the news, or rather through its manipulation, which can alter the opinions of voters and compromise electoral integrity. Democracy exists because it is the only reasonably fair government system for the average citizen due to its reliance upon the common man’s opinion, and is the reason people fight to uphold its existence today. However, there are a great many threats that arise with any system of government and democracy is no different, the threats are simply more subtle and harder to recognize without special attention.
Democracy functions because of voting, and voting only works if one knows who and what they are voting for, and why. So if the sources that supply the people with information are corrupted somehow, then consequently, the voting system is corrupted and democracy begins to decline. In today’s media landscape, there are two major ways for information sources to be manipulated: Fake News, which according to Cambridge Dictionary is defined as “false stories that appear as news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views,” and through false or over-exaggerated political advertisements. There are no fundamental issues with a political advertisement, until they start heading towards the route of a populist agenda where campaigning techniques are used to ruin the credibility or character of one’s opponent (Muller). When politicians and parties begin using the wide spread availability of social media to debase their opponents with fake news stories and spread lies about their own and other’s campaigns, it disrupts the entire purpose of news which is to inform the viewer so they can in turn make informed decisions about who and what they are voting for.
There are several major platforms that politicians can use to manipulate voters. People are not reading the newspaper anymore and there has been a decline in cable news networks over the past 10 years as well, but a rapid increase in social media as the method for news sourcing and information shows where voters are now finding their information and forming their opinions (Pew Research Center). People are turning to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube to catch up on global events, and political campaigns have caught onto this too. Again, there is nothing wrong with a fifteen second ad before a video outlining a politician’s campaign in order draw traffic to their campaign website, since it is no different than seeing an ad in the newspaper and going to the local rally to hear the person give a speech. The issue arises when political campaigns use those fifteen seconds to slander their opponents or make exceedingly false or over-exaggerated claims about their own campaigns.
The question then arises as to what can be done. It is not up to Facebook and YouTube to monitor and remove these falsities of their own volition, but rather the job of those who created the issue, the politicians. “It is their job to make the laws under which everyone else—technology firms included—must operate” (The Economist). To charge the social media companies with the task of monitoring and removing every false piece of information is not only impossible but also unconstitutional. It is impossible for a number of reasons. Facebook has about 2.5 billion monthly users (Statista), that means 2.5 billion people creating, liking, sharing and commenting upon posts every month. There is no way facebook could monitor all of that information without infringing on the rights of free speech. The only way they could monitor the site would be by removing anything political, such as comments, posts, accounts and the like; and since social media has become the major place for news companies like CNN, BBC, and Fox to publicize their articles and videos, this would seriously limit the amount of coverage available to people. And if they started deleting political comments, then it would infringe upon the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, and that is only assuming the CEO of the company is American and follows the US Constitution.
All things considered, the lawmakers should take ahold of this problem. The continuation of false information and slanderous campaigns is a threat to democracy, but the solution available to tech companies is also a threat in its own way. The one way to curb it would be for the government to require false or satirical news websites to post a noticeable disclaimer at the top of every article and post, so that voters know the material they are reading is not factual. And the only way to keep these sites in check would be to enforce a penalty of either a fine or threat of post removal should they fail to add the disclaimer. This is not Facebook’s job, they are not a news company or source, they did not sign up to be a news company or source, it was a result of changing media norms, so it should be up to lawmakers to punish and make news companies accountable for their actions and uphold democracy as we know it today. Now other democratic countries would have to follow suit or this would only affect American news companies since they’re the only ones liable under American law, “[which] will be a burden, but it is the price of success” (The Economist).