Expository Article: The Proliferation of Misinformation

By Elina Alkhimovich.

Expository Article: Social Science


In recent years, widespread concern about the proliferation of misinformation and misleading news on social media has sparked debates in the international community. Controversies regarding whether the government or media companies should impose restrictions and sought solutions to reduce misinformation are bound by complexities, entrenched interests, and politicization. To shed light on this contradictory matter, the following opinions will discuss misinformation accounts, the validity of perceived truth, the repercussions of a government-restricted press, and possible solutions to misinformation. The government should not restrict the liberty of the press; however, private sectors should not refrain from countering misinformation online.


Misinformation is defined as “false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive” (Oxford Languages, 2021). The polarization in modern politics is frequently marked by disagreement over facts as well as opinions. To what extent does an opinion-based interpretation of a perceived truth turn into misinformation that the government should restrict? Misinformation is detrimental because it propagates inaccurate beliefs and can exacerbate partisan disagreements over basic facts. However, the definite truth of a controversial issue oftentimes does not exist. The origin of SARS-CoV-2 is an example; scientific investigations have shown consensus that the virus was not engineered, others presented hypotheses tracing back to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which sparked others to accuse Fort Detrick. Upon encountering arguments that the coronavirus was engineered in laboratories like the article “Wuhan lab leak theory: How Fort Detrick became a centre for Chinese Conspiracy” from BBC (BBC, 2021). I classified these articles as misinformation by skeptics based on my fundamental knowledge of influenzas and personal opinions regarding why any government would engineer contagious bioweapons without a prepared cure. Therefore, I resorted to scientific reports and ventured into the Covid-19 origin debate. As I became interested in this issue, however, I reviewed different hypotheses to various arguments, and to my surprise, all claims were supported by some degree of valid information. These dangling hypotheses, some stemming from political incentives, can be labelled as misinformation but can also be perceived as “truth” from another perspective. If the government were to regulate the media, deciding the border between misinformation and information is a contentious issue, let alone if it is feasible for the government not to dictate the media by political biases.


The internet facilitates a global social interaction ecosystem with news updates, comment chains, and political advocacy. For the first few decades, before the surge of misinformation, this interconnected world was an unrestricted civic forum: a place where opposing viewpoints, ideas, and conversations could constructively collide (Anderson & Rainie, 2017). However, with misinformation becoming a prominent issue in the political sphere, voices began supporting government restrictions on the press. Restricting these contents to ensure the accuracy of information distributed sounds like good riddance; however, its adverse implications on democracy should not be neglected. When given the authority to restrict the media to reduce misinformation, the government dictates this social interaction ecosystem. In this hypothetical scenario, misinformation will be restricted; however, the government may abuse this power to silence voices of political opposition in the name of restricting misinformation. Government manipulation of public opinion through the media has been prevalent in history, marking the start of a power transition into authoritative state ownership of the media (The Encyclopædia Britannica, 2021). As protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and The First Amendment, the freedom of speech and the press is an essential component of democracy and should not be restricted (Government of Canada, 1982).


Finding an appropriate balance to re-establish accuracy in the primary institutions of a democratic society is critical to combat the systematic efforts being made to misinform. There is no quick or easy fix to the problems associated with misinformation. Variations of misinformation include fabricated content, manipulated content, misleading content, and false context of connection; these variations pose questions on how solutions should be implemented. Instead of any forms of censorship and restrictions on the media itself, content distributors should label warnings on identified misinformation.

Mainstream media should counter misinformation by voluntarily adhering to specific standards, such as using headlines that accurately reflect the content of a piece, identifying double- or multiple-source factual assertions, emphasizing liabilities of unnamed sources, including photos of reporters and links to their bios, and ultimately publicizing inaccuracies (Balkin, 2017). These solutions require private tech companies to take initiatives and identify misinformation present in their sphere of influence. As private companies will also likely not maintain a level of neutrality and will have political biases, these publicized warnings will only alert the viewers to caution when viewing the indicated article, putting the brakes on the spread of misinformation.


Reference


Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2017, October 19). The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online. Retrieved from Pew Research Center: https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2017/10/19/the-future-of-truth-and-misinformation-online/


Balkin, J. (2017, March 7). Fighting Fake News. Retrieved from Yale Law School: https://law.yale.edu/sites/default/files/area/center/isp/documents/fighting_fake_news_-_workshop_report.pdf


BBC. (2021, August 23). Wuhan lab leak theory: How Fort Detrick became a centre for Chinese conspiracies. Retrieved from BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-58273322


Government of Canada. (1982). Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Retrieved from Government of Canada: https://publications.gc.ca/site/archivee-archived.htmurl=https://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/CH37-4-3-2002E.pdf


Oxford Languages. (2021). Misinformation. Retrieved from Oxford References: https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095721660#:~:text=It%20is%20misinformation%20that%20the,French%20(d%C3%A9s%20%2B%20information).


The Encyclopædia Britannica. (2021). History of Censorship. Retrieved from The Encyclopædia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/censorship/History-of-censorship