Is social media a threat to the First Amendment?

The First Amendment protects the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition — but does it protect posts on Facebook?

Sofia Chavez is a freshman international studies major

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution secures the right to free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom to petition, and freedom to assemble. These secured rights have evolved naturally from the time the U.S. was founded in 1776 to the 21st century.

On Oct. 23, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and co-founder of Facebook, testified to Congress for the second time regarding a cryptocurrency project called Libra. What was particularly interesting during the hearing was Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s line of questioning. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s questions for Zuckerberg were targeted toward the disinformation spread by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm that influenced the 2016 presidential elections by promoting and creating ads that advertised false information and misleading posts on Facebook. When Zuckerberg failed to respond to her questions directly, Ocasio-Cortez added, “I mean, if you’re not fact-checking political advertisements, I’m just trying to understand the bounds here, what’s fair game.”

The First Amendment establishes the freedom to voice one’s thoughts and opinions, but, in echoing Ocasio-Cortez’s question, what if these thoughts and opinions are lies? What if these lies disrupt the democratic process by swaying voters through misleading ads on social media platforms? If unrestricted, is it possible that one of our most basic freedoms can disrupt the integrity of our democracy? 

The First Amendment establishes the freedom to voice one’s thoughts and opinions, but, in echoing Ocasio-Cortez’s question, what if these thoughts and opinions are lies?

Unfortunately, that seems to be the case in this current political climate.

With a president who, according to the Washington Post, made over 12,000 false or misleading claims over a period of 928 days, lies have become normalized. The frequency of President Donald Trump’s faulty claims no longer seem audacious; we see them every day. The question then arises: should the First Amendment protect lies spread through social media? 

I don’t think so.

Intrinsically, the freedom of speech protects the freedom to lie as long as you are not spreading false information to ruin someone’s reputation (which would be considered libel or slander). Despite this,  lying and the spread of misinformation directly taints the integrity of the press, which is responsible for reporting news accurately and reliably, and the consequential role that it has in a democracy. Without a trustworthy press and a culture that disavows lying, our representative democracy would fall apart. 

It is the job of the press to keep the public informed in order to make responsible choices, such as when choosing the leaders of their country. Therefore, we must stop allowing lies to spread through social media. Misinformation in the form of ads or organic posts (which are made by actual users) on Facebook, as well as any other social media platform, should be regulated by those responsible for their management — and especially by those profiting from them. 

The First Amendment is integral to our American identity, but lying isn’t. We must protect our freedom of speech and therefore cannot take advantage of it, nor let it take advantage of us.


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