UC Berkeley deans discussed social media disinformation and its intersection with freedom of speech during Cal Performances’ “Illuminations: Fact or Fiction” virtual talk Sunday.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law; Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy; and Geeta Anand, dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, raised various concerns about the proliferation of disinformation on social media and proposed policies that could potentially combat these issues. Janet Napolitano, former U.S. secretary of Homeland Security and UC president, served as both a moderator and participant in the discussion.
“Disinformation is spreading wildly,” Anand said at the talk. “Truth cannot compete because social media algorithms promote divisive stories, regardless of their truthfulness, over accurate, informative stories.”
The first question raised to the panelists asked them to point out a central issue concerning the spread of disinformation on social media. Brady explained that human confirmation bias causes people to only seek out information that reinforces their current worldview.
When brainstorming potential policy solutions, Brady suggested promoting various social media platforms with different approaches to content curation. In response, Chemerinsky pointed out that even with multiple social media options, people may still choose to exclusively use more popular platforms.
Anand emphasized pressuring social media companies to take responsibility for the content produced on their platforms. She added that since social media has become many people’s primary news source, there “may be some merit” in treating social media similarly to newspapers by holding them accountable for disinformation.
On the other hand, any form of social media content curation would make it more difficult for ordinary people to express their views on those platforms, according to Brady. The government also does not possess the ability to tell social media companies “what they can or can’t say” due to the First Amendment, Chemerinsky added.
Conversely, giving social media companies the power of arbitration would be “just as bad” as granting the government that ability, Chemerinsky said. More accurate speech in the public arena should be used to oppose false information instead, according to Chemerinsky.
“The idea of the First Amendment is that ideas can be expressed, and it can be responded to,” Chemerinsky said at the talk. “We don’t want somebody else to determine what is true or what is false.”
According to Anand, the prevalence of disinformation in the United States is “so dire” that society may need to reevaluate the First Amendment and free speech in order to hold social media companies responsible in some way.
At the conclusion of the event, the panelists were asked what actions they would take concerning disinformation if they were a U.S. senator. Anand said she would advocate for significant national funding for journalism, and Brady said he would promote higher-quality civic and criminal justice education, along with basic internet literacy.
“Part of what higher education does is it teaches our students critical thinking so that they will be able to discern for themselves what is true and what’s false.” Chemerinsky said at the talk. “If any place can be the marketplace of ideas where all ideas and views are expressed and discussed, it’s got to be higher education.”