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.

Does social media threaten the freedom of the press?

Does social media threaten the freedom of the press?

Social media is one of the most controversial yet common parts of society today. Almost everyone has a social media account (or several), and while many of us enjoy connecting with friends and family, there are many downsides to social media as well.

Take freedom of the press, for instance. How do you think social media has influenced journalism today: for better or for worse? Let’s examine some of the potential threats that social media poses to our basic press freedoms in the US and abroad:

Inconsistent censorship policies

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other major social platforms are regularly criticized for their unclear censorship policies and potential biases against certain individuals and groups. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, we can see how this lack of clarity when it comes to which content is accessible to the public can be damaging for small-time journalists who may be censored for publicizing their opinions on social media.

So how do social media platforms differentiate between truly credible journalism versus fake news or borderline libelous content? For the time being, they’re trying to rely on artificial intelligence to sort the good from the bad, but since the algorithm isn’t perfect, some journalists may fall through the cracks and face stringent censorship policies.

Doxxing journalists

The term “doxxing” refers to the act of gathering and publicly posting someone’s personal information online for the purpose of intimidation. This is an alarmingly frequent tactic used against journalists in order to punish them for unfavorable reporting or frighten them out of their jobs. Doxxing would arguably not be as effective without social media, which allows for the rapid sharing of the most private details about another person for the purpose of harassing, stalking or intimidating them.

If journalists are not free to perform their jobs without fear of getting doxxed as a result of their reporting, then how can we possibly ensure the news we are getting is accurate and not at all influenced by such intimidation tactics?

#FakeNews

A recent study conducted by computer scientists found that an average of 59% of social media users share content without ever clicking on the link they’re sharing! This presents a gloomy outlook for legitimate news organizations that are trying to promote truthful, ethical journalism amid a sea of fake stories with clickbait headlines that are specifically designed to evoke emotional reactions to that content, regardless of it’s actual validity.

In this sense, the spread of completely false information threatens legitimate journalism outlets just as much as the #fakenews label thrown around on social media. This false information distorts our perceptions of reality and makes it more difficult to believe anything we read.

Fear appeals in public discourse

Fear appeals in public discourse

Fear appeals are commonplace in political rhetoric and advertising campaigns, but they can have a damaging effect when enough people are quickly persuaded before taking the opportunity to critically deliberate the validity of these appeals.

Also referred to as “fear-induced persuasion,” fear appeals are designed to convince an audience of an idea with horrifying imagery and dread-filled rhetoric. For instance, you might’ve seen some anti-smoking ads that used fear appeals to convince others to stop smoking by showing graphic images of a long-time smoker’s lungs or letting someone with severe emphysema narrate an anti-smoking commercial.

While fear appeals aren’t always bad (e.g., ads to stop people from drunk driving), they can significantly influence our public discourse, for better or for worse. Let’s explore how this happens through some contemporary examples:

Emotionally Charged Rhetoric

Fear appeals almost always start with emotionally charged rhetoric, which involves words and phrases with unfavorable connotations applied to a target. In political and everyday speech, there are several relevant examples of emotionally-driven rhetoric:

And the list goes on and on. The fact of the matter is: it’s important to recognize how emotional language can distort our perceptions of the truth and cause us to react negatively before we even consider all the facts surrounding the individual or group targeted by fear appeals.

Constructing the Enemy

This brings us to the concept of constructing the enemy. Historically, Germany’s Nazi Party offers one of the most recognizable forms of enemy construction, in which a propaganda campaign led to the mass extermination of millions of Jews (who they blamed for poor economic conditions in the country at the time).

In a nutshell, “constructing the enemy” involves extensive rhetorical efforts (using speech, images, “experts,” cherry-picked examples blown out of proportion, propaganda campaigns, etc.) to designate a group of people as an enemy. After 9/11, the uptick in society-wide Islamophobia demonstrated the powerful persuasive appeal of American politicians’ rhetoric about Muslims. Nowadays, the notion that “illegal immigrants are stealing our jobs” is one of the most common examples of fear appeals that is used to justify tighter immigration policies.

How is the First Amendment Involved?

Free speech is one of the essential cores of the First Amendment, but it isn’t 100% unrestricted, according to historical legal precedents. For instance, in the 1969 Supreme Court case, Watts v. United States, it was found that threats must be considered separately from constitutionally protected speech (especially when they’re “true threats,” which may be prosecuted under the law in order to prevent fear, disruptions and violence arising from genuine threats).

A more recent (and complex) example would be that of InfoWars‘ host Alex Jones’ involvement in a lawsuit initiated by parents of Sandy Hook shooting victims, after he claimed the deadly school shooting was a hoax. This is a different kind of fear appeal, in which Jones reduced a real tragedy to a made-up incident, blaming gun control activists for using a fearful “narrative” of children dying in school shootings to get more gun control policies passed in state and federal legislative bodies. In other words, Jones labeling the Sandy Hook massacre as a hoax could be viewed as a fear appeal designed for a pro-2nd Amendment audience.

As we can see, fear appeals are extremely persuasive, both in the US and abroad. Even when they have little to no basis in reality, they can significantly alter public opinions about certain individuals and groups, which could potentially lead to violence against these scapegoated groups. As fervent supporters of constitutional rights for all Americans, we must recognize how fear appeals can subtly change our perceptions of reality and use our First Amendment rights to speak out against fear-based rhetoric that our politicians, media outlets and companies use on a daily basis.