Forming individual and personally-evaluated opinions about current issues is becoming harder with the exponential rise of fake news following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Fake news is propaganda in disguise and is delivered to the public as valid and credible information. The purpose of fake news lies in the conflict between the right and the left and is used by both sides to promote antagonistic perceptions of one another. The 2018 midterm election has ignited political activism on both ends of the political spectrum, and with it comes more fake news and disinformation being fed to the public. Swaying public opinion with hoaxes is dangerous because it promotes conflict, not discussion. The public is absorbing disinformation that triggers anger and hate of the other side, so they will be less likely to engage in conversation to bridge the gap between the right and the left.
The prominent presence of fake news brings forward the controversy over whether it should be prohibited. We are granted freedom of speech under the First Amendment, but to what extent? Is it constitutional to limit freedom of speech?
From a public safety perspective, limiting freedom of speech to prohibit verbal expression that triggers fear seems reasonable. For example, yelling “Fire!” in a building or “Bomb!” in an airport should be prohibited, since it triggers fear and hysteria. Likewise, it can be argued that fake news triggers fear in the public, so many believe that it should be prohibited. However, since fake news incorporates elements of bias and propaganda, it can also be considered an expression of opinion, which should not be limited under the First Amendment.
The conflicting opinions on whether limiting fake news contradicts the First Amendment have contributed to the polarization of the American political climate. We most commonly see attacks on fake news made by President Donald J. Trump, who has been using this notion to dodge attacks on him made by left-wing advocates. In his tweets, Trump has accused Democrats of using fake news to criticize him. On Nov. 5, Trump tweeted, “So funny to see the CNN Fake Suppression Polls and false rhetoric. Watch for real results Tuesday.” Calling out CNN for distributing fake news is not uncommon, especially on Trump’s behalf, but it is also not uncommon for CNN to deliver news with a level of bias that attacks the president. Trump’s tweets, as many of us know, contain a great deal of irony; while accusing the left of distributing fake news, Trump uses Twitter to distribute disinformation to build up public support. For instance, on Nov. 2, Trump tweeted, “Rumor has it that Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana is paying for Facebook ads for his so-called opponent on the libertarian ticket. Donnelly is trying to steal the election? Isn’t that what Russia did!?” This is a perfect example of fake news; Trump used invalid information to attack a Democratic senator, he is distributing disinformation to promote public disapproval of Donnelly.
It can be difficult to maintain freedom and safety in such a polarized political climate. When both sides of the spectrum are constantly clashing, detestation is inevitable, but there is a point where expression of hate or disagreement threatens public safety and that is where limits should be placed on freedom of speech. For example, saying you hate President Trump because he is part of a conspiracy with Russia, while not necessarily true, is a valid expression of opinion through potential disinformation. If, however, you add a threatening message to that claim, it would be an invalid form of expression and should be prohibited. Disagreeing with or even hating political figures is very common, but opinions that threaten them or their supporters should be prohibited because they compromise public safety.
Keren Blaunstein is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.