Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

We shouldn’t perpetuate false controversies

De-platforming works
Sean P. Anderson/Flickr

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].

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  • N

    NITZAKHONDec 12, 2018 at 2:31 pm

    A fantastic counter argument to the “deplatforming” concept:

    Four Reasons Deplatforming Controversial Figures Is a Terrible Idea

    And one other: By rigorously silencing, and not countering, ideas, they go underground. Just because virulent racism doesn’t get a voice on twitter doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; those who believe it will find ways to meet, find ways to connect, and find ways to echo-chamber amplify their bigotry. And when it does come out, it’s explosive.

    Consider the “yellow vest” protests now spreading in Europe. Ostensibly about fuel taxes, what it’s becoming is a widespread protest against Islamic Hijra, which we’re learning more and more is an actual pan-western-Europe governmental policy – by agreement with the Arab states dating back to the 1970s. This enforced population migration and, worse, importation and pushing of Islam, is not wanted by the native Europeans. But woe betide anyone who dares speak out – they’ll lose their jobs, they’ll be ostracized.

    Thus it has gone underground; only now, with people standing up for their native lands by the hundreds if not thousands, is it seen – and shocking by its strength.

  • N

    NITZAKHONDec 2, 2018 at 6:19 pm


    The Nazis were also great admirers of the early 20th century “progressive” movement. E.g.:

    Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change

    The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left

    That Hitler was a socialist was WELL KNOWN until the Left did an Orwellian rewrite.

  • A

    amyNov 29, 2018 at 6:56 pm

    little free enterprise*

  • A

    AmyNov 29, 2018 at 6:55 pm

    There are standard liberal talking points including deplatforming or shutting down a person’s right to free speech. I also took a class with him and he is very liberal and radical.

    I am sorry Joseph is ignorant; a basic reading of hitler is how he shut down jewish press, he shut down dissenting voices much like the author argues which is ‘wrong’ and ‘dangerous’ and eventually Hitler sought and obtained total control of the media to use as propaganda organ.

    This is common knowledge. If you want to practice third-world speech censorship move to a third-world country.

    Let’s not forget either that Hitler was a socialist, he operated a ‘national socialist’ government with little free press and the government had near total control over the economy and means of production.

    The sad thing is liberals are so quick to call others nazis but in reality they have the most in common with them.

  • N

    NITZAKHONNov 29, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    I used to believe in (cue dramatic and ominous music) “climate change”… then I looked into it. And the more I looked, the more I found it was reliant on fraud. When you have to adjust data to match the theory, and silence critics with threats of job loss and worse, well, then it’s not a theory, it’s a faith a la the Spanish Inquisition.

    Read the following two websites for a week.

  • J

    JosephNov 29, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    @amy: I know the author and he’s not a liberal/leftist. I’m not sure you actually read the article, since he explicitly states that banning speech is wrong. If companies realize they lose money by giving a platform to Nazis and flat-earthers, then it’s their right to stop giving these ideas a mainstream platform.

    I’m also curious how educated you are on history, because to the best of my knowledge, Adolf Hitler never said “Allow dissenting ideas the right to exist but understand the nuanced idea that no one is obligated to give them a platform if they engage in intentionally bad-faith argumentation and misinformation.” In fact, I’m pretty sure the Nazis skipped all that boring stuff and just burned books. But then again, facts never really stopped internet MAGAers.

  • A

    amyNov 29, 2018 at 4:34 am

    Thank you for this article!

    Finally an honest liberal, liberals have long been called out for their manipulation of the media and social media and deliberately abusing rules and reporting people in order to ‘deplatform them’ Although they usually deny it…

    Thanks for your honesty, although obviously there are huge flaws from your faulty reasoning as if speech alone or the free press was responsible for nazis to holocaust to your primitive ideas that words have some magical power to your total lack of respect for the freedom of mind of others to think whatever they want even if it’s wrong(wrong for some means what they disagree with) to the total lack of respect of freedom of speech.

    It’s extremely important to support all free speech and ignore hysteria and oppressive opinions of liberals who want to ‘deplatform’ others because it ‘normalizes’ ‘dangerous ideas’. It is exactly the type of op-ed by this author that is dangerous and for two reasons. 1. He is most likely brainwashed by the education here, his talking points are exactly the sort of that things that are repeated endlessly in classes and are all conclusory. The author doesn’t seem to have slightest care that everything he is stating is opinion but he argues like they are facts 2. He is actually suggesting -action-, to oppress others who engage in ‘dangerous’ ideas, whereas those people are only talking.

    If I am not mistaken.. ..didn’t Hitler make the same suggestion?