‘False news’ hated more than ‘hate’ on social media

Published 12:27 pm Thursday, July 5, 2018

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

We hate false information on social media even more than “hate speech” or personal attacks, says the 2018 State of the First Amendment survey released last Thursday by the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute.

The same survey also found that a majority of us want the social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to do the false news takedown, not some government authority or official truth czar.

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Overall, 83 percent of Americans agree that social media companies should remove false information, compared to 72 percent who agree such companies should remove “hate speech” and 68 percent who would have personal attacks taken down.

Those with a high school education or less were significantly more likely (87 percent) than those with a college education (77 percent) to agree that false information should be removed. There were no statistically significant differences among income groups.

The survey was conducted by Fors Marsh Group, an applied research company based in Arlington, Virginia, which speculates that those less educated may rely more heavily on social media as a source of news and therefore worry more than others about whether they are getting truthful information.

We strongly believe that social media companies should on their own initiative be monitoring and removing such objectionable content. But hold off on those free-expression celebrations: When asked directly, respondents were about evenly split on whether to go a step further and empower the government to require those companies to “monitor and remove.”

In total, the survey sample included 1,009 adult respondents, with a margin of error of 3.7 percent — meaning it’s likely that if you asked another 1,009 adults the same questions, the results might go up or down by 3.7 percent.

When it comes to speech on campus, the survey showed that the public leans toward hearing from controversial speakers over cancelling invitations to speak — though support drops significantly when the speech is likely to cause violence.

Solid majorities favored going ahead with such speakers at colleges and universities even when the remarks were likely to offend some groups or individuals (55 percent).The nation was closely divided (51-45 percent) on withdrawing an invitation if the speaker was likely to provoke “large-scale protests from students” or when the speech was supported by public funds (47-46 percent). Small percentages in both cases declined to response or “didn’t know.”

Only when violence was likely to occur did 70 percent favor withdrawing an invitation to speak.

The survey found that the more we know about our First Amendment freedoms, the less likely we are to agree with placing limits on those freedoms.

But again, the warning buzzer sounds: As found consistently over the last 21 years of survey results, many of us know very little about those basic rights. According to this year’s survey, 40 percent of us cannot even name one First Amendment freedom. For the respondents who could, unprompted, name a First Amendment freedom, freedom of speech (56 percent) was the most commonly recalled, followed by religion (15 percent), press (13 percent), assembly (12 percent) and petition (2 percent). Two percent mistakenly guessed the right to vote, while the right to bear arms (9 percent) was the most common mistake.

Anything less than overwhelming support for freedom of religion and free expression brings cold comfort to those who see democracy’s base as resting on both. Even finding that about three-quarters of respondents (74 percent) see a role for the news media in holding government accountable, a slight uptick from last year’s 68 percent, means that around one in four of us does not see the news media as such a needed “watchdog.”

We can take heart that this year’s survey findings bend toward free expression and freedom for the press. But, we ought to be more than just concerned that a sizeable number of us seem willing to disavow those core freedoms for one reason or another — or can’t even be bothered to remember them.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@freedomforum.org, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.