Chapter Meeting Discussion: The Role of Social Media in Elections

Updated: Nov 15, 2020

by Abigail Krenz, Shoshi Gevelber, Radha Ramanathan (Castilleja Chapter)

Castilleja’s Real Talk Chapter met for an introductory information session on September 5th. After a quick introduction to the club and our plans for the year, we led a lesson in civil discourse. We introduced the Real Talk acronym and then challenged our attendees to apply their learning to a real-life discussion: social media in elections.

After misinformation and foreign interference efforts proliferated on online platforms in the 2016 election, many social media companies have taken an active role in protecting election security: YouTube has started to take down videos that seek to suppress voting or that are harmfully modified, and Twitter has banned all political ads on its platform. In contract, Facebook had taken a staunchly pro-free speech policy, claiming that taking down false content is censorship. Until now. Amid mounting pressure from the American public and its own employees, Facebook introduced a slew of new policies in the run up to the 2020 presidential election.

Facebook will prevent new political ads from airing in the week before elections. The company has already started taking down posts that discourage voting and redirecting users to an accurate voter information center at the top of its newsfeed. Because misinformation spreads through private channels, Facebook has limited the maximum number of forwards to five people on both Messenger and WhatsApp.

These new policies have received mixed responses. Politicians on both sides have asserted that the changes will give an unfair advantage to their opponents. A White House spokesperson said the move will censor the speech of politicians. There’s also controversy over whether the restrictions will have any impact. Most misinformation travels privately, and candidates will still be able to air ads, change which groups they are targeting, and spend more money on advertising in the week before the election.

After explaining the situation, we asked our club this series of questions:

  1. What does free speech mean to you? Should political ads be protected by the First Amendment?

  2. Who should decide what is “harmful” information? Social media companies? Users? The government?

  3. If you were Mark Zuckerberg, what would you do?

  4. Do you think that these restrictions are important for this election? Would they have been useful in past elections?

  5. If you were in a government position, what measures would you put forward to combat or support political ads?

After discussion in breakout rooms, we came back to share our ideas with the group. Many were concerned that the definition of harmful information is highly subjective; governments and corporations should not decide what information is “harmful” because those institutions have biases and special interests. Others believed that some information is objectively harmful, such as hate speech or content meant to suppress voting. At what point does the individual's right to choose accurate information supersede the right to free speech? Well, the Real Talk continues.

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