We shouldn’t perpetuate false controversies

De-platforming works


Sean P. Anderson/Flickr

By Edridge D'Souza, Collegian Columnist

I used to be of the opinion that we should give all ideas a platform. After all, once different sides voice their opinions, the public can decide which ones are right and wrong. Ideas that are bad will get little support and ideas that are awful will be ridiculed, while the good ideas stick around. It seemed reasonable that the best way to pick good ideas would be to give an equal platform to all sides of an issue and let the public decide which sides deserve to be taken seriously.

Of course, this isn’t how it actually works. In the current age of debate over social media bans, we’re soon learning that even outright terrible ideas will spread as long as they’re given an audience. Take the obvious examples: climate change denial, flat earth conspiracies and the anti-vaccine movement have all experienced a renaissance of sorts in the public consciousness.

Now, this isn’t to say that all (or even most) people believe in these things. In most of these cases, these fringe ideas have low public support. However, the way in which the media reports on these issues creates a sense of false consensus, emboldening these ideas and allowing them to spread. The result is a public perception that is drastically divorced from the actual facts. While there is an overwhelming consensus among the scientific community about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, celebrity voices like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey and Donald Trump have all spread misinformation on the subject. The saying “vaccines cause autism” was once an obscure and factually incorrect phrase, but now, it’s a popular and factually incorrect phrase.

When harmful ideas like this spread, they can be difficult to combat. The spread of the anti-vaccine movement has resulted in new measles outbreaks, and while the majority of the public still believes in the effectiveness of vaccines, this support has slipped over the past decade. In the ideal free market of ideas, people would look at both sides of the “debate,” determine that one side is plainly incorrect and then support the other side. The problem here is that there is no debate. While there are minor risks associated with vaccination, the scientific and medical communities—the people most qualified to opine on vaccines—overwhelmingly support vaccination programs. A fringe minority was able to gain popular support not because of the quality of their ideas but merely because of their repeated exposure to the public eye.

News media bears a large part of the blame here. Networks like CNN, MSNBC and Fox all thrive off of controversy and therefore have a financial interest in making issues seem controversial, even if the actual evidence is conclusive. In this way, they have promoted the anti-vaccine myth, the climate change denial myth and countless other political or social myths. Even if an issue is essentially decided, they will still feature guests from the opposing fringe in order to create the false impression that there is a controversy.

The disappointing effect is that by pretending that there is a controversy, these networks manufacture one. Suddenly, the public no longer supports the scientific consensus on climate change, and less than half of people believe that the trend of global warming is man-made. The American public went from generally trusting the opinions of experts to making climate denialism a core component of one of its major political parties’ platforms.

The implication of this is important. As long as someone can repeat a falsehood to a large enough audience, they have the potential to legitimately change public opinion. Networks that manufacture controversy in order to boost their ratings are now responsible for shifting the Overton window and normalizing fringe beliefs. A few years ago, Nazism was heavily disavowed at all levels by both political parties. But after the media gave new attention to fringe white nationalists like Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi like Arthur Jones was able to obtain a whopping quarter of the vote in his congressional race.

Liberal or conservative, there are certain ideas that simply don’t deserve a place in the public discourse. By manufacturing controversy about non-controversial issues, the news media is responsible for normalizing dangerous ideas and shifting the Overton window for the worse.

What are the next steps? Of course, outright banning speech is never the right answer. The Streisand Effect will just give fringe ideas more power, adding martyr status to their believers. The proper way to deal with misinformation is to simply not give it a platform. This is easier said than done, as network news stations still have an incentive to create fake controversies. However, sites like Reddit have engaged in de-platforming, which is effective at combating the spread of misinformation and bigoted speech online.

Is it a good idea to permanently let the concept of free speech rest on the whims of tech giant CEOs? No, of course not. Censorship by a company is no different than censorship by a government if the company is big enough. The ultimate solution involves holding the news media to a higher standard. Whether by legislation, popular boycotting or other means, the American public needs to make it clear that false information does not deserve equal air time as real news.

Edridge D’Souza is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]