Is Censorship the Answer to Misinformation on Social Media?

According to a report from the UK’s Royal Academy, there is a great deal of misinformation on social media. Deliberately spreading lies on the internet has led to many negative consequences. For example, in the 2020 election, many social media accounts amplified the false claim that the election was rigged. Additionally,  misinformation has also spread regarding concerns on 5G mobile technology, climate change, COVID-19 vaccines, and the effectiveness of masks. Some say the solution is to delete posts promoting false claims such as anti-vaccination or anti-masking. However, this is an act of censorship.

The Royal Academy report concludes that censorship will have a small effect on spreading misinformation since it will drive misinformation into darker parts of the internet which contain small websites that cannot be controlled or monitored. Frank Kelly, chair of the report and a professor of the Mathematics of Systems at the Statistical Laboratory in Cambridge, commented, “While clamping down on claims made outside of the scientific consensus may seem desirable, it could ‘hamper the scientific process’ and force genuinely malicious content, or disinformation, underground.”

Social media connects people and simultaneously spreads unfiltered information that could have positive or negative effects. Instead of completely censoring false information, the Royal Academy writers recommend funding analytical organizations, looking through sources of information to assess credibility, and investing in educating more people about misinformation. Still, rather than deleting the online content, strategies such as demonetization, fact-checking labels, and regulating algorithms can help curb the effects of this spread of misinformation, according to Vint Cerf, Google’s chief internet evangelist and a member of the report’s working group. It’s important to note that not all people spread misinformation maliciously, and therefore, education could help prevent this unintentional spread.

Many claim that censorship of misinformation on social media infringes on our First Amendment protection of free speech. While this is not the case, there are still other options such as educating others or funding small organizations that could debunk these misconceptions that should be further explored.