Americans use the First Amendment — freedom of speech, of religion and of the press — to exercise their right to protest, gather and discuss their shared truths. The very bedrock of our democracy is the ability to speak and think freely and not enter some Orwellian future. Yet this protection is under constant threat.
Across the world, the suppression and censorship of free speech are virulent and spreading. More importantly, it is genuinely disabling many progressive movements. Earlier last year, Iran shut down the internet for a week, shutting down protests both in the physical and online world. Russia continues to separately build a parallel internet (or in this case an intranet) where thoughts, actions and beliefs are policed.
So, where can one generally draw the line between what is harmful, incendiary speech and what is free speech? I look to the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects all forms of speech as long as they cannot cause any harm to another party. Harm does not, however, always have to be physical. People can still be hurt, either emotionally or intellectually.
Identifiably, the primary source of such action can come from a misunderstanding of “fake news.” Most times, misinformation can destabilize rational thought. Such examples can encompass antivaccination movements, flat Earth campaigns and climate change denial, among many others. Just recently, with the coronavirus outbreak, South Korea has had to cut down on social media posts regarding false rumors and has had to focus on proper education for the population.
But there is an even more terrifying undertone to misinformation that relies upon human psychology and can be abused quite heavily. According to researchers in a very recent study, fake news becomes “less fake” the more one views it. In short, “the researchers believe that repeated exposure to fake news can rectify its contents” and that people become more likely to share it. The more it is shared, the more viral it becomes and the more it is repeated. With that, “fake news” suddenly becomes very real.
How can this sort of exposure be abused? Regimes and certain malicious groups can push certain messages that fit their points of view. Unlike irrational individuals, such groups will also have the power and authority to commit enormous amounts of money into sponsoring such messages. For example, the Koch brothers had been pushing a right-wing agenda for decades, supporting weakly researched papers and simply engaging in misinformation campaigns. In many ways, this becomes glorified propaganda, repeated so often that it becomes the only perceived truth in the world.
Unfortunately, the campaign of propaganda is spreading, not stopping. At this point, this op-ed is not a political message but a simple ask, a plea to the public to become more aware of where news truly comes from and how to identify it. And how do you do it? Focus on the credibility of the writer, quality, timeliness, sources, citations and consult the experts.
Another degradation in our freedom of speech that I find important to highlight is the power authority figures hold over less fortunate populations (and even us at times). With media blackouts, the suppression of protests and riots and the simple ignorance when it comes to some issues, freedom of speech in many other places is going by the wayside. Thus, while we may not be able to do much to help the citizens of these other nations, we can never forget our own duty to our country: to speak our minds and to speak loudly. No matter what you believe, you have to be loud and vocal.
And as freedom of speech is facing the new threat of degradation from the far-right and the far-left, the world must come to a consensus on where we can draw the line. What’s wrong? Many things are. The sources we used to trust are no longer to be trusted— we have no one to truly rely upon in the age of digital media. The only thing we have going for us? Our own minds.
I’d like to leave you with this thought: 3.5% of any population in an area is what it takes to stand up against a government in a nonviolent protest and succeed. Not half of the population, not a quarter, not a tenth. Just a simple 3.5%. Thus, never be afraid to responsibly speak your mind.
Atharva Palande is a UC Berkeley freshman majoring in economics.