NewsMediaMisinformation in the era of social media

Misinformation in the era of social media

Nigeria, January 11, 2021 (Innocent Iroaganachi, SIGNIS Correspondent). The fundamental right of expression as it relates to freedom of speech needs re-evaluation in order to address the misinformation and abuses created in an age of technological advances in communication, mainly in social media. A comprehensive examination is needed to determine what expressions that are appropriate exercises of speech, especially when speech puts public and private safety in jeopardy.

An untold number of infections recorded and lives lost during the COVID – 19 pandemic, were likely a result of disinformation spread by social media. From the comfort of their homes and offices, many conspiracy theorists used social media to transmit lies, to convince their audience to reject scientifically proven safety measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus. According to the Irish Examiner, “misinformation was going to become a major issue in social media,” as these conspiracy theorists relied on the fundamental right of freedom of expression to defend their harmful actions.

No doubt, freedom of expression will always remain sacred, but when it is used in such a manner that leads to harm, it no longer merits the privileges attached to it, because with freedom comes responsibility. Donie O’Sullivan, a journalist reporting live as the United States capitol was invaded, said “what we saw…was thousands of conspiracy theorists descend, listen to their conspiracy theorist-in-chief.”

Interestingly, there are hundreds of people assembling in private social media groups like Facebook and WhatsApp, engaging in racial extremism, tribal radicalism, religious fanaticism and supporting violent anti – government measures. Views against minorities which are driven by prejudice and racism, that are ordinarily despised in the community, are gaining popularity and acceptance online. Hate speech is fast becoming the preferred way of denouncing and opposing those who hold contrary views.

The series of violent protests staged against COVID – 19 prevention measures and the recent attack on the U.S capitol clearly shows “a connection between the rise of hate speech on social networks and physical violence carried out in the outside world.” It is so irritating to see and hear the choice of words used in devaluing and attacking the opposition, and the arguments used in calling for hatred and violence against people on the opposing side.

The various social media platforms also share blame in the rise of the abuses as well.  These platforms have been algorithmically programmed so that the more reaction there is to specific content, the more prominent the content becomes on the platform. This technical programming gives less scrutiny to the message itself. Social media platforms, admired for supporting quality interaction and networking, are turning into spaces where misinformation that endanger lives is fostered. On these platforms falsehood is thriving, while truth, which is sacred, is ridiculed.

Views that deal with public safety must be substantiated by facts, and the same must be provided to the public in full without reservation. To avoid misinformation, the public or private institutions responsible for the content, should provide open access to the facts asserted so the public can access and verify them.  This will avoid situations where people will easily disseminate claims that are capable of distorting order and peace. Freedom of expression on the social media should only be used to express constructive views and criticisms that add to the development of the society and not be used as a weapon that destroys it.


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