With a title like that, I should certainly get some clarifications out of the way. First, I’m absolutely for the freedom of speech, but as you’ll see if you read on, social media has changed the scope and parameters of that freedom — so, un-bunch your undergarments. Secondly, I’m well aware that I myself might not deserve an audience, but at least I’m kind and not spewing lies and disinformation, or worse still, organizing some sort of insurrection. The bar is pretty low now, isn’t it?
This is a tightrope walk, this topic, but it’s one I willingly make. The sheer volume of misinformation in America is astounding, and it’s causing major problems — arguably the biggest problems that misinformation can cause: chaos and insurrection. The fact that America is doing so poorly with the COVID-19 pandemic is due to the heinous mismanagement by the previous administration, but perhaps more frightening is the misinformation that has led millions to shirk the precautions because “they know better.”
Yes, the problem is that people believe the disinformation and act on it, but the bigger problem is the source. Many have stopped trusting experts in favor of outside, non-expert opinions that feed into their outrage. For example, if you want to believe that masks don’t help curb the spread of COVID-19, there are a host of actual doctors willing to say that masks either don’t work or actually do harm. There are people willing to misinform, and these people have an audience.
Everyone does deserve a voice. The freedom of speech is something I do hold dear. But, just like driving is a privilege that requires you follow basic laws, so too should be the way we communicate with the masses. There seems to be some general feeling, especially on the right, that censorship has gotten out of control. But what they fail to consider is that the seemingly boundless reach of social media is a whole different beast. Never before did anyone have the reach that social media grants with such ease. Fringe opinions, conspiracy theories, and misinformation were harder to spread before everyone became an online personality with a voice and an audience.
To have an audience of any size is a tremendous responsibility — the bigger the audience, the bigger the responsibility. It cannot be taken lightly how much influence a person has within their audience, how much an audience hangs on the speaker’s every word. And so, to tell such monstrous lies on social media with no regard for the consequences is dangerous, and needs ramifications. Because social media is relatively new territory, we need new rules and new laws to regulate it. The internet cannot be the wild west, as it has been for the last several years. People cannot hide behind a profile, spewing misinformation to the masses without personal consequences. The mob of people that stormed the capitol believed internet lies, conspiracy theories, and the words of a mentally ill outgoing president — those lies caused real-world harm. The people who don’t believe in masks, of which there are a great many, are actively hurting the country’s recovery from the pandemic.
So yes, everybody does deserve a voice. But, having an audience is a massive responsibility and a privilege — that privilege, like a driver’s license, should be able to be taken away if the privilege is abused. It verges on censorship, I know. But I’m talking about the ability to spread lies to large numbers of people, an ability that was never as easy as it is now. New developments call for new laws, and social media is in desperate need of laws. Just because you have a voice, doesn’t mean that everyone should hear it.