It is January of 1792. In Congress Hall, George Washington stands to announce that the Bill of Rights has been ratified; “Freedom of the Press” is now a constitutional right. 1 However, support for a free press stretches back farther than even America’s founding documents. “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” wrote John Milton in 1644. 2 A maxim true of its time, but perhaps not ours.
How we communicate truth (and falsehood) has changed in the 380 years since Milton. Media today can be classified into two broad categories: Traditional Media and New Media.
- “Traditional media includes printed materials (books, magazines, and newspapers, broadcast communications (TV and radio), film, and music.”
- “New media includes all forms of communication in the digital world, including electronic video games, the Internet, and social media.”
In practice, New media is distinguished from Traditional media by its immediate, free, and global accessibility.3
New media, however, is only the most recent development in a long story of punctuated equilibrium. The true paradigm shift towards a regulated press began with radio.
The Fairness Doctrine, established by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) in the 1940s4, required “ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views,” i.e., that stations allot airtime equally to both sides of controversial issues.5 In 1987 the Fairness Doctrine was repealed over concerns regarding the first amendment.
The Fairness Doctrine is important because it temporarily created a regulated press. This was possible because the Fairness Doctrine, at least on paper, did not actually prevent anyone from saying anything – it simply ensured that those who had something to say had a platform to say it: creating, in the words of Milton, “a free and open encounter” between Truth and Falsehood.
Yet there are compelling arguments against the Fairness Doctrine and its executors the FCC. Given the number of media outlets in the U.S., it’s unlikely the FCC was able to monitor everything equally. Decisions about which station must split their air time and which stations might fly under the radar might be made arbitrarily, or worse, at the dictate of political bias.6
The Fairness Doctrine is both a reminder that regulation of mass media is not foreign to the U.S. and a counterpoint to how the U.S. has approached New media and the internet.
Who owns the internet?
Originally it was the U.S. government, specifically its Department of Commerce (USDC), but in 2016 the internet was signed over to a global non-profit, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN is responsible for the distribution of domain name systems (DNS) – i.e., making sure when you click a link it takes you to the correct website.
The transfer of power, from the USDC to ICANN, was essentially about freedom of speech. Proponents of the transfer claimed less direct oversight by the USDC decreased the risk of foul play; opponents of the transfer worried decentralized oversight would incubate misinformation.7 Regardless, the internet could not have remained under USDC jurisdiction because the web is, almost by definition, a global common. U.S. oversight could not have been sanctioned forever.
While lawmakers no longer have a direct say over whether something goes up on the internet or not – they can pass laws to prevent dangerous posts.8 The question is will they? As social media becomes the integral link between elected officials and their constituents, social media firms gain leverage and soft power over politicians that might deter congressional interference. 9
New media, including social media, digital media, and video games, can be distinguished from Traditional media on the basis of immediacy (speed), accessibility (free access), and global distribution.10
1. Speed: the more quickly information is disseminated the more imprecise facts get – like a high-speed game of telephone.
2. Accessibility: lowers the threshold for author/source qualifications. Where a subscription fee incentivizes traditional media outlets to provide quality information that is entertaining, social media’s recommendation algorithms prioritize information that is entertaining (measured by engagement) without a quality check.
3. Global Distribution: recommendation algorithms govern what content a user sees on social media. These algorithms use prior engagement to gauge what information might appeal to you – then recommend it. Since engagement reflects the user’s internal biases, recommendations reinforce those biases, creating a filter-bubble effect that increases partisan conflict.
Filter bubbles are what make misinformation deadly. Examples include the Cambridge Analytica Scandal which purportedly used behavioral data (records of users’ engagement along with their profile) to send targeted bits of misinformation – swaying users’ opinions to achieve specific political outcomes.11
The strong emotional response sensational misinformation provokes creates a positive feedback loop where sensationalism increases engagement increasing the likelihood of recommendation which further increases engagement. By this mechanism, scandals begin to take on the appearance of fact by popular belief, a belief powerful enough to halt governments (see Jan. 6th and Social Media).12
1. Prioritizing Government/Law Enforcement social media accounts during crises: This solution is preferred because government agencies have no financial incentive to alter facts and tend to be better informed during crises. This approach also bypasses algorithmic feedback loops because it prioritizes information based on its source, not engagement. Prioritizing government accounts during crises is, however, a reactionary solution that would only kick in during crises without preventing the crises themselves.
2. Updating recommendation algorithms to prevent the formation of filter bubbles: in this scenario tech firms, of their own volition, update recommendation algorithms to prevent the formation of filter bubbles – resolving misinformation at the third level of New media.
3. Monitoring and censoring misinformation: in this approach, a body, either within social media firms, or the government, routinely fact-checks posts to prevent misinformation. There’s a high possibility this approach violates the first amendment and that market forces make it infeasible: heavy censorship undermines social media’s purpose as an open and connected commons.
4. Direct government intervention: this could mean the construction of an independent monitoring body (like the FCC) or the passage of laws that require tech firms to take specific actions. This sort of regulation harks back to the Fairness Doctrine and faces the same concerns too. Chiefly, how can nonpartisan government intervention be assured, and interdependently, will lawmakers risk running afoul of social media firms’ soft power?
5. Media literacy: the best thing an individual can do is consciously sample information from sources across the spectrum. Media bias charts are an easy way to ascertain where a source’s political views lie; actively searching out opposing perspectives prevents filter bubbles, instead creating Milton’s “free and open encounter” to better determine the Truth.
While Milton’s maxim is a good one, note that two people listening to the same arguments may draw different conclusions because, to an extent, we are each our own arbiters of the truth. The point of media literacy is not to create the same truth for everyone, but to ensure the conclusions we draw are based on arguments grounded in fact. Once these basic requirements are satisfied, let Truth and Falsehood grapple in a free and open arena, democracy will never suffer for it.13
1. “Bill of Rights.” National Constitutional Center, https://constitutioncenter.org/learn/educational-resources/historical-documents/bill-of-rights. Accessed 18 July 2022.
2. Milton, John. Areopagitica. Arc Manor LLC, 2008.
3. University of Minnesota Libraries. “16.1 Changes in Media Over the Last Century,” Understanding Media and Culture, https://open.lib.umn.edu/mediaandculture/chapter/16-1-changes-in-media-over-the-last-century/. Accessed 18 July 2022.
4. Bureau of Justice Assistance. “The Communications Act of 1934,” U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs, https://bja.ojp.gov/program/it/privacy-civil-liberties/authorities/statutes/1288. Accessed 18 July 2022.
5. Perry, Audrey. “Fairness Doctrine.” Updated by John R. Vile, The First Amendment Encyclopedia, May 2017. Articles, https://mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/955/fairness-doctrine. Accessed 18 July 2022.
6. Thierer, Adam. “Why The Fairness Doctrine Is Anything But Fair,” The Heritage Foundation, 29 Oct. 1993. Government Regulation, https://www.heritage.org/government-regulation/report/why-the-fairness-doctrine-anything-fair. Accessed 18 July 2022.
7. Baral, Susmita. “Who Controls The Internet? US Government Hands Over Control To ICANN,” International Business Times, 3 Oct. 2016. World, https://www.ibtimes.com/who-controls-internet-us-government-hands-over-control-icann-2425491. Accessed 18 July 2022.
8. “Can the Law Regulate the Internet? How Government Agencies Seek to Regulate Big Tech.” Bleakly Platt Attorneys at Law, 7 Feb. 2022. https://www.bpslaw.com/can-the-law-regulate-the-internet-how-government-agencies-seek-to-regulate-big-tech/. Accessed 18 July 2022.
9. Leetaru, Kalev. “Governments Can’t Regulate Social Media Because They Are Too Dependent On It,” Forbes 21 April 2019. AI & Big Data, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2019/04/21/governments-cant-regulate-social-media-because-they-are-too-dependent-on-it/?sh=75ffbdee2aec. Accessed 18 July 2022.
10. Entman, Robert M. and Nikki Usher “Framing in a Fractured Democracy: Impacts of Digital Technology on Ideology, Power and Cascading Network Activation,” Journal of Communication, vol. 68, 2018, pp. 298-308. ACADEMIA. Accessed 18 July 2022.
11. Meredith, Sam. “Here’s everything you need to know about the Cambridge Analytica scandal,” CNBC, 21 March 2018. Tech, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/21/facebook-cambridge-analytica-scandal-everything-you-need-to-know.html. Accessed 18 July 2022.
12. Robdeaux, Candance interviewed by Emma Greguska. “ASU researcher shares insights on the role of social media in the Jan. 6 insurrection,” Arizona State University, 5 Nov. 2021. University Senate, https://usenate.asu.edu/asu-researcher-shares-insights-role-social-media-jan-6-insurrection. Accessed 18 July 2022.
13. Meserole, Chris. “How misinformation spreads on social media—And what to do about it,” Brookings, 9 May 2018. Order from Chaos, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/05/09/how-misinformation-spreads-on-social-media-and-what-to-do-about-it/. Accessed 18 July 2022.