Social media plays dangerous role in proliferation of far-right ideas

Courtesy of Wall Street Journal

03/21/2019

By Ollie Gratzinger | Opinions Editor

Our world is more connected now than it ever was before. In our hands, we hold access to every bit of information ever known; it’s only a click away. We can send messages across the world in a fraction of a second. There’s no doubting that technology has come remarkably far in recent years, and because of it, we’ve been able to accomplish so much. But the Internet has a slew of dark, cobwebbed corners, where disinformation festers and evil is given a platform.

It isn’t that social media is innately bad. It has a lot of positive aspects, really. There’s no harm in keeping up with old acquaintances in a way that’s perfectly impersonal. Cat videos never hurt anyone. But ill-intentioned people have been using platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as smaller sites like Gab, Reddit and 4chan, to rally, connect, plan and condemn. Without regulation, the shadowed crevices of unmoderated sites are churning out evil.

The Tree of Life shooter, for instance, used the far-right social site Gab to spew the vitriol that ultimately led to a massacre. The Christchurch shooter in New Zealand, wanting infamy, live-streamed part of the attack on Facebook. The virality of social media has made it an ideal tool for far-right terrorists and extremists to use to radicalize and mobilize others. Hate speech hides under the guise of free speech, and ideas that were once on the fringe of civil society have become commonplace.

Social media has also made it easier for “fake news” to spread. Facebook is notorious for this, and despite the site’s best attempts at filtering out the falsehoods and bringing in the truth, fake stories still spread like fire. While some of the clickbait-laden articles are innocuous advertising ploys, other lies tend to push a right-wing political agenda. From images of a Nazi falsely claiming the man was a young George Soros — a Jew — to the “Pizzagate” scandal in 2016, the dangers of allowing social media sites to become the internet’s own Wild West are very real. It isn’t only partisan. Innocent people can and do get hurt. By this point, I think “fake news” has become synonymous with propaganda. If social media platforms are going to continue to exist, they need to do some serious moderation.

The greatest danger of fake news is that people believe it. We always have. In the 1830s, a New York newspaper ran a story incorrectly claiming that life had been found on the moon. The masses ate it up with such ferocity that rival newspapers ran it, too, and pretty soon, almost everyone believed it just because they’d read it from a source they trusted. A decade later, a radio broadcast of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds had countless Americans believing Earth had been invaded by aliens. People packed up their things and tried to outrun an invasion that would never come.

We look back and laugh at the silliness of believing such out-there stories, but the common denominator is that the information came from sources that the consumer was familiar enough with to consider credible. The same thing is happening with Facebook and other social media websites. People trust the platforms, and they usually trust the friends or followers they have on there. Stories that are simply untrue gain momentum because they’re usually interesting exposés or radical propositions shared not by anonymous trolls with egg profile pics on Twitter, but a friend from high school or an old pal from camp.

I’m all for free speech. Naturally, I believe in the tenants of the First Amendment strongly and passionately. But we can’t just let anybody say anything online, especially when they can hide behind a screen and a mask of anonymity. Regulation of these websites might be necessary. Hate speech is not free speech, and fallacies cannot keep masquerading as facts. As a growing and deeply popular medium, social media sites have a responsibility to protect their users from not only ideological extremists and blatant untruths, but also from each other and themselves.

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