Fake news and the First Amendment

Fake news and the First Amendment

40943266_MWhy does “fake news” get so much attention in the press these days? Tabloids and media rumors have been around for centuries, but the spread of “fake news” is a relatively recent phenomenon that has become a serious problem thanks to the instantaneous sharing capabilities of email, texts and social media.

Is “fake news” as big a threat to our First Amendment freedoms as some people proclaim it to be? Let’s unpack the potential implications:

Freedom of the Press

During a time when newspapers and other media organizations are struggling to stay afloat financially, it’s increasingly concerning to witness how fake news stories with clickbait headlines are getting more engagement and shares on social media than legitimate news stories. This poses a serious threat to the freedom of the press clause in the First Amendment because fake news stories distort public perceptions about real-life events, which has led to problematic consequences such as:

  • Increased public distrust of media organizations
  • Lower subscription rates for credible news outlets
  • Higher rates of censorship, harassment and even violence against journalists
  • Alarming incidents of people acting upon fake news stories, such as the infamous “Pizzagate” scandal

Unfounded “Fake News” Accusations

Another major concern related to fake news and the First Amendment is the prominence of politicians, corporate executives, and other societal leaders referring to news stories they disagree with as “fake news,” regardless of the truthful nature of the story in question. By dismissing unfavorable news stories as “fake,” these individuals — many of whom have large followings on social media and in real life — are contributing to negative public sentiment towards journalists and media organizations.

Furthermore, discrediting news stories and/or organizations by labeling them as “fake” is making it increasingly difficult for members of society to discern between fact, “alternative facts,” and fiction. This only furthers public mistrust in otherwise highly credible news outlets and allows an individual’s persuasiveness to outweigh factual reporting published by diligent journalists.

To help combat the growing issue of fake news in our society, be sure to read through FactCheck.org’s guidelines for detecting fake news stories before sharing a questionable news story on social media or dismissing something you disagree with as “fake news.”

Fired over social media posts: Is this a First Amendment violation?

Fired over social media posts: Is this a First Amendment violation?

90535565 - frustrated unhappy woman with tablet computerMany people have been getting fired from their jobs recently due to content they posted on their personal social media accounts. Some of the well-known instances of someone losing a job due to their expressions on social media include:

  • Former Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was fired for 2008-2009 era tweets containing offensive messages about race, women, the Holocaust and 9/11.
  • Former PR executive Justine Sacco, “jokingly” tweeted about not getting AIDS during a trip to Africa because she was white (she was fired before her plane landed after the tweet went viral).
  • A former nurse in Texas was fired for violating HIPAA by posting about a patient with measles in an anti-vaccination group in which she was a member.

There are many other instances of people losing their jobs over social media posts, but does this actually violate their rights to freedom of speech and expression? Let’s unpack some of the First Amendment issues at hand:

Free Speech in a Private Workplace

As the American Bar Association points out, “if this use of economic power to punish speech sounds un-American, remember that the First Amendment limits only the government’s ability to suppress speech.” This means that individuals employed by private companies could be subjected to restrictive social media policies as conditions for their continued employment and possibly fired for posting anything that could hurt the company’s reputation — even if you don’t post anything about the company or people working there at all.

Union members may have greater freedom when it comes to posting whatever they want on social media without fearing retribution from an employer due to union negotiations and contracts prohibiting the termination of an employee for reasons related to social media activity. However, this is not guaranteed and if you’re considered an “at-will” employee, then the First Amendment likely will not protect you if you’re fired as a result of something you posted or even shared on social media.

Free Speech for Public Employees

Since public employees work for the government, most of them are given full First Amendment rights to freedom of speech in the workplace and beyond. As WorkplaceFairness.org explains, public employees can generally not be terminated from their positions unless their speech relates to a matter of “public concern”. But even this is a murky gray area that courts have yet to adequately and thoroughly define.

Watch What You Post on Social Media

To minimize the possibility of losing your job over what you post on social media, there are a few things you should do to lower your risk of retaliation:

  • Delete any old posts that could be considered inflammatory or offensive.
  • Limit how far back people can view your posts on your social profiles.
  • Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t want to see connected to your name.
  • Increase your social media privacy and security settings.
  • Review your employer’s social media policy for employees (if one exists).
How do filter bubbles lead to political polarization?

How do filter bubbles lead to political polarization?

48268157_MAccording to Roger McNamee, filter bubbles are the “most important [tools] used by Facebook and Google to hold user attention” because they lead to an “unending stream of posts that confirm each user’s existing beliefs.” In other words, filter bubbles arise from online algorithms that are tailored to each individual user based on what they have previously searched for. This may seem like a good idea for creating a more customized web browsing experience, but when it comes to politics and democracy itself, filter bubbles can have devastating consequences.

Since our upcoming National Symposium focuses on the subject of political divisions in America today, let’s explore the role online filter bubbles play in political polarization:

Shutting Out Dissent

Filter bubbles are dangerous because they create the illusion that everyone agrees with our thoughts and opinions online. If we disagree with someone’s political views on social media, we can simply block or unfollow them, which means we won’t have to read any dissenting opinions, let alone engage with others who disagree with us in any way. This is problematic because it can further entrench our values and ideas without ever having to critically question why we believe what we believe or consider alternative viewpoints.

If we are not exposed to other ideas and perspectives beyond our own beliefs, then this artificial absence of contrary evidence or opinions can trick us into thinking we must be right because no counter-argument seems to exist. In reality, we simply don’t see those counter-arguments. The algorithms that determine what we see first (or at all) in our social media and news feeds sacrifice exposure to many possible views in exchange for a highly subjective web browsing experience related to our search histories.

Be Open to New Perspectives

To avoid getting caught in a filter bubble and boost your own awareness of others’ views, it’s important to consume news and other informative content from a variety of websites and news platforms instead of only going to one source for all your information. Additionally, you should embrace opportunities to engage with others who disagree with you – online and offline – in order to understand what “the other side” believes and critically consider your own beliefs, rather than accepting them as innately true.

It’s not easy to accept the possibility that viewpoints contradicting your own could be just as valid as your views, but it’s a crucial component of becoming a well-rounded and informed citizen, rather than giving in to political polarization and attacking the “other side” just because you disagree with them. The old adage of “let’s agree to disagree” is relevant here – you may never come eye-to-eye with someone online, but rather than getting trapped in a filter bubble, actively reach out and constructively engage with others to bridge divides and begin the healing process for our deeply polarized nation.

The 3rd Annual First Amendment Voice Symposium is just around the corner

The 3rd Annual First Amendment Voice Symposium is just around the corner

44868478_MJames Madison once said, “What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support?” With our Founding Fathers’ wisdom in mind, we couldn’t be more excited to share new and exciting details about our upcoming national symposium with you! This year’s theme involves “E. Pluribus Unum or Divided?” – in which we’ll explore the current state of political polarization in the U.S., along with research-proven strategies and expert advice guiding discussions to help us overcome divisions amongst our fellow citizens.

What you need to know about the Symposium

This year’s symposium will take place at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. We have many amazing speakers and discussion panels lined up, and you can get a head start on the event by attending our exclusive VIP reception at the Wyndham Hotel on Friday, September 14th.

Since our main focus is overcoming political divisions and developing new, constructive ways to interact with citizens in our communities and online, panels will include speeches from experts and opportunities for attendees to discuss the most pressing issues affecting our First Amendment rights. The symposium will begin at 9am and conclude at 5pm on Saturday, September 15th, so be sure to sign up today to secure your spot at this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Student can enter our Instagram contest

George Washington once said, “A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”

In other words, students of today are the protectors of our First Amendment freedoms in the future, which is why we want to acknowledge and reward civic-minded high school and college students for their efforts. If you are actively making a difference in your community and want to learn more about how you can preserve First Amendment rights for everyone, then you won’t want to miss our Instagram contest this year!

We’re giving away free tickets to the symposium for students who demonstrate their commitment to unity by following First Amendment Voice on Instagram and submitting photos with #FAVUnity in the caption (be sure to explain how you’re bridging divides and bringing people closer together, too!). One student grand prize winner will receive free admission to our VIP Reception at the Wyndham Hotel on Friday evening before the symposium begins, so enter our contest any time before September 1st for a chance to win big!

Plan your visit to this year’s Symposium

The 3rd annual symposium is just around the corner, so click here to sign up to attend the event. Performing our civic duties involves so much more than just voting, so come out to Philadelphia and engage with like-minded citizens to learn about the latest and most successful strategies for protecting our Constitutional rights for all Americans.

The pros and cons of lowering the legal voting age in the United States

The pros and cons of lowering the legal voting age in the United States

13621133 - hand with ballot and box on flag of usaAfter the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, there has been an uptick in public discourse concerning the legal voting age in the U.S. In many vicinities, the legal voting age is 18. However, there are some districts and areas, such as Takoma Park (Maryland), that have lowered the legal voting age to 16 instead. In 21 states across the country, 17 year-olds can vote in primaries if they’ll be 18 by the general election date, but is this enough?

Since voting is a crucial First Amendment issue, consider these pros and cons of lowering the U.S. voting age to 16:

Pro: Increase Civic Engagement and Awareness Among Youth

As the American Council of Trustees and Alumni points out, we have a crisis of civic education in the U.S. currently. We have people of all ages who barely know important aspects of history (studies have shown that people are even forgetting about the Holocaust), and many Americans can’t explain the difference between the 3 different branches of the federal government.

This ignorance is not limited to young people (voter apathy happens at every age!), yet we focus on their life inexperience and lack of knowledge as a justification for denying them voting rights. Since young people must obey the laws like any other citizen and they’re affected by the policies our government leaders establish for our society (especially when it comes to education and long-term economic policies), why shouldn’t young people have some say in the laws that uniquely affect their lives? By lowering the voting age, we could likely increase youth involvement in civic participation and bolster their interest in political issues because they’re no longer sitting on the sidelines.

Con: Their Brains Aren’t Fully Developed Yet

A major argument against lowering the voting age is that young people’s brains aren’t fully developed until they’re in their mid-20s. However, this scientific argument demonstrates why 18 is a mostly arbitrary number when it comes to something like voting, not to mention: teenage brains aren’t so different from adult brains.

Yes, teenagers are still immature and learning about how the world works. Yes, teenagers can be prone to emotional decision-making. Yes, teenagers are more susceptible to external influences than adults with more life experience. However, consider how these arguments function when applied to people who are 18 or older:

  • Should an adult with maturity issues be denied their right to vote?
  • Does everyone have their lives figured out and understand how the world operates by 18? By 30? By 60? Ever?
  • Should we assume that rational decision-making is something that automatically kicks in once you turn 18? Are adults (of any age) not prone to emotional decision-making as well?
  • Are adults completely immune to external influences (such as fake news, political propaganda, fear appeals-based political advertising, vitriolic campaign rhetoric, etc.) and able (and willing) to make fully-informed decisions about their voting options?

Once you see how the common arguments against young people can be similarly employed to disenfranchise adult voters, the claim that 16-17 year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to vote falls apart.

Pro: Increase Voter Turnout

Did you know that young people have higher voter turnout rates than you might expect? While the issue of mandatory voting could take up a whole other blog post, it’s important to consider what role choice plays in American society. Adults have the freedom to decide whether or not they want to vote, regardless of their education level, work experience, military service, gender, religion, family background, and other factors. All that matters (with the exception of mental disabilities and felony records in some states) is that you’re older than 18.

To increase voter participation in our elections, we should allow younger people the opportunity to vote if they want to. That’s the beauty of America: we have the freedom to decide if we want to participate in our democratic system or not.

Con: Parental Manipulation

Another common argument against lowering the voting age in the US is the notion that parents will force their kids to vote for whomever they’re voting for. However, this argument is non-unique because children grow up with their parents’ political ideology expressed in familial interactions – how is an 18 year-old who still lives at home more immune to parental influences than a 16 year-old?

Furthermore, 16-17 year-olds in the news recently (such as the Parkland shooting survivors and other school shooting survivors) have demonstrated a keen awareness of political issues affecting them, even when their parents were minimally interested in politics beforehand. Perhaps parental manipulation could still happen, but arguably the pros outweigh the cons here.

Pro: Protect Youths’ First Amendment Rights

As the Yale Law & Policy Review points out, voting is speech. Voting is the act of expressing a preference for a candidate, policy, and/or ideology, and in a democratic society, there is arguably no such thing as a “wrong” vote. By preventing young people from voting, we’re preventing them from exercising their First Amendment rights. As we can see from the Parkland shooting survivors, Malala, and other extraordinary youth, people under 18 are already getting involved in politics.

There are even youth volunteering and interning opportunities within political action committees and other political organizations. If young people are interested in politics and want to exercise their First Amendment rights, then who are we to deny them that fundamental right?