Barack Obama made headlines recently for making an urgent warning to the American people, claiming that widespread misinformation over the past few years has led to the “weakening of democratic institutions around the world”. Specifically, Obama singled out massive social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, calling on them to do more to prevent the spread of such harmful content. Despite the extensive media attention that this specific speech by Obama has garnered, the controversy over social media’s regulation of content deemed as “disinformation” has been hotly debated over the past few years. Critics of Obama’s position argue that most censorship from these companies means that their executives and employees have the ability to control the vast majority of content flowing through the American mainstream. They argue that this ability is a massive overstep for any single entity, and encroaches upon the first amendment’s preservation of free speech. So why is Obama so insistent that disinformation is weakening democratic institutions across the world, going as far to say that “people are dying because of misinformation”.
To understand the arguments of each side, and just how much of a threat misinformation on social media is to our democracy, one must consider the major instances in which disinformation has had a very real influence on our country over the past few years. Arguably the most infamous example of such instances is the January 6 riot at the Capitol, an insurrection driven by months of misleading, baseless, and false claims from sitting president Donald Trump. The attack, which left multiple rioters(5-9 depending on how one measures the effect of the event) and Capitol Police officers dead, came after weeks of Trump claiming that he had in fact won the 2022 election, encouraging his supporters to “fight like hell”, telling them that if they did not “stop the steal” they would “lose their country” in a burst of tweets sent out in the days leading up to January 6. Despite the fact that many of his supporters claim that the removal of tweets promoting the “stop the steal movement”, Obama was quick to point out in his speech that had these baseless accusations been censored originally, lives of both Trump supporters and capitol police officers could have been saved. This tactic of making baseless, false claims and then labeling them as “alternative facts” was an engine established by Trump in order to control the narrative surrounding his campaign and administration(Barrera Rodriguez, Oscar David et al. 2020)
While the January 6 attack is an excellent example of dangerous disinformation due to the blatantly encouraging tweets sent out by Trump in the weeks leading up to the event, widespread misinformation surrounding the covid-19 vaccines has undoubtedly had a far greater effect on the lives of many Americans. Obama points to the fact that over 20% of Americans remain totally unvaccinated against covid as of early April 2022 as a sign that vaccine misinformation remains a real problem. He says that considering that the vaccine has now been clinically tested on billions of people and proven to be extremely safe and extraordinarily effective at limiting one’s risk of serious covid-19 symptoms, it is imperative to encourage Americans to get vaccinated. Medical experts and professionals across the country seem to agree with Obama on his assertion that disinformation is a major reason why Americans are hesitant to receive the vaccine. Unfortunately, hesitancy to receive the vaccine has undoubtedly cost the United States tens of thousands of lives, as covid-related deaths for unvaccinated persons have more than quadrupled the number of covid-related deaths for vaccinated Americans. Despite the importance of preserving the first amendment, Obama’s recent speech obviously emphasizes some extremely important points regarding disinformation. While free speech is itself an inherently key aspect of a democratic institution, censoring the spread of dangerous misinformation on a privately-owned platform is not only morally permissible, but extremely important. As Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss, times of economic crises and public discontent is when democracies are most vulnerable. Considering the fact that the past year or two of American politics fits this description very well, it is obvious how important it is to take every precaution to defend our democracy.
While I tend to agree with most of Obama’s policies, I took his support of social media censorship with a grain of salt. Even though there is a very apparent misinformation problem in social media apps, especially Twitter and Facebook, I don’t agree with the fact that he wants it to be censored as it would go against the First Amendment. Freedom of press is one of the cornerstones of a stable democracy and there is no middle ground to censorship.