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360: Combating misinformation on social media

Social media sites tighten platforms as election nears
Posted at 7:06 AM, Jan 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-28 09:43:43-05

MILWAUKEE — In recent weeks, combating the spread of misinformation has been top of mind following the riots at the capitol, a social media ban on now-former President Donald Trump, and that combat has now become a key issue in the fight against the coronavirus under President Joe Biden's new administration.

Freedom of expression, free speech, and open debate are core values in America. Which is why there has been renewed debate sounding the role social media companies have in limiting misinformation and spreading information.

To learn more about how individual users of social media can be better stewards of information and interrupters of misinformation, TMJ4 News goes "360."

We will dig into what President Trump said after he was banned from several social media platforms following claims that the election was fraudulent.

360: Combating misinformation on social media

We will also hear from local experts, including a law professor who defends social media companies, both legally and ethically, in banning Trump from their platforms, an English professor who shares about the role social media plays in shaping political discourse in our nation, and from a professor of communication who says now, more than ever, is a time to brush up on news literacy skills while engaging with information online.

We start with Donald Trump's farewell address.

"Only if we forget who we are, and how we got here, could we ever allow political censorship and blacklisting to take place in America," said Trump in part of his final speech from the White House.

On the eve of President Biden's inauguration, former-president Trump shared these words, which came after he was banned from both Facebook and Twitter, among other social media websites, after he repeatedly claimed the election was fraudulent.

His comments leading up to the ban, some argue, stirred up his supporters who participated in riots, resulting in violence.

"It's not even thinkable. Shutting down free and open debate violates our core values and most enduring traditions," said Trump.

But, was shutting down the President's accounts illegal or unethical? Dr. Erik Ugland, a professor of Media Law at Marquette University argues no to that question.

"They are private entities and the First Amendment only is a limitation on the extent to which the government can impose restrictions a person's free speech or free press," he said.

He says there are no legal obstacles to social media companies banning anyone from their platforms. And, when asked if he thought the move was ethical, he said in this case it was.

"I do think Twitter has an obligation, and all of these social media platforms, because of their outsized influence to impose some outer limits on the speech that occurs on their platforms. I think that is being responsible corporate citizens," said Ugland.

He says the question now becomes how much users want to allow these social sites to steer the conversation and determine what is considered appropriate political discourse.

"The power of words is not only in what they say, but the power of words is really in what they do," said Dr. Richard Grusin, an English professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

He offers another perspective as an expert in how social media shaped political discourse, especially under the Trump administration.

"People are moved to act by their emotions, their passions, their sentiments," he said.

While he does think it was fair to remove Trump's accounts after the riots at the Capitol, he argues that individuals must now also become more aware of the social media they're using and how it really works.

"I think what's really important to understand is that the way that social media are designed is to mobilize people's emotions and ultimately to mobilize people themselves," he said.

He believes understanding the algorithms social media use to pry on emotions and gain engagement and reaction will help all users in how they react to the information they find online.

"The lessons are less about news literacy than they are about a news mediacy," said Grusin.

Marquette University Communication Professor Dr. Sumana Chattopahyay, who researches political communication, has a different perspective.

She believes news literacy has a very important role to play here in interrupting the spread of misinformation.

"Right now, more than ever, we live in a world where every social media user's views are heard or have the potential to be heard by millions of people," said Chattopahyay.

She shares advice to help limit the spread of what many call "fake news" on social media.

She suggests cross-checking information using websites like Snopes, PolitiFact, or credible news outlets.

She also says it's important to read beyond the headline and to pay attention to who the author is and to the date on which the information was originally shared.

She also says users should consider potential biases of particular sources and to always be cautious of satire.

"I think right now we should take more responsibility and just be more vigilant when we are sharing information or reading information because we can, I would say, we could save lives. Especially when we talk about the virus or other things that lead to violence."

Each expert's advice shared from the perspective that understanding the way individuals engage with content during this time in our history is important to forming a better-informed society.

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