Censorship controversies made many headlines throughout 2023. We’ve seen revelations about heavy-handed content moderation by the government and social media companies, and the looming U.S. Supreme Court decisions on Florida and Texas laws to restrict social media. Behind these policies and laws is a surprising level of public support. A Pew Research poll offers a skeleton key for understanding the trend.
According to Pew, a majority of Americans now believe that the government and technology companies should make more concerted efforts to restrict false information online. Fifty-five percent of Pew respondents support the federal government removal of false information, up from only 39 percent in 2018. Some 65 percent of respondents support tech companies editing the false information flow, up from 56 percent in 2018.
Most alarming of all, Americans adults are now more likely to value content moderation over freedom of information. In 2018, that preference was flipped, with Americans more inclined to prioritize freedom of information over restricting false information – 58 percent vs. 39 percent.
Pew doesn’t editorialize when it posts its findings. For our part, these results reveal a disturbing slide in Americans’ appreciation for First Amendment principles. Online “noise” from social media trolls is annoying, to be sure, but sacrificing freedom of information for a reduction in bad information is anathema to the very notion of a free exchange of ideas. What is needed, instead, is better media literacy – not to mention a better understanding of what actually constitutes false information, as opposed to opinions with which one may simply disagree.
Still, the poll goes a long way toward explaining some of the perplexing attitudes we’re seeing on college campuses, where polls show college students lack a basic understanding of the First Amendment and increasingly support the heckler’s veto. These poll results also speak to the increasing predilection of public officials to simply block constituents with whom they disagree. And it perhaps explains some of the push-and-pull we’re seeing between big, blue social media platforms and big, red states like Florida and Texas, where one side purports to protect free speech by infringing on the speech rights of others.
While these results are interesting from an academic perspective, the suggested remedies raise major red flags. Americans want private technology companies to be the arbiters of truth. A lesser but still significant percentage wants the federal government to serve that role. Any institution comprised of human beings is bound to fail at such a task.
Ultimately, if we want to protect the free exchange of information, that role must necessarily fall to each of us as discerning consumers of news. The extent to which we are unable to differentiate between factual and false information is an indictment of our educational system. And, as far as content moderation policies are concerned, they must be clear, standardized, and include some form of due process for those subjected to censorship decisions.
More than anything, Americans need to relearn that if we open the door to a private or public sector “Ministry of Truth,” we will eviscerate the First Amendment as we know it. You might be on the winning side initially, but eventually we all lose.