10 Ways to Safeguard Freedom of Speech — Will They Work?

MIT professor Nicholas Ashford considers proposals to counter the rise of misinformation

By Paula Klein

Fostering critical thinking, reviving the Fairness Doctrine, and creating truly independent oversight of media are all effective ways to deter misinformation while safeguarding freedom of speech. But they are all needed together–along with several other approaches — to have serious impact, according to MIT Technology and Law Program Director, Nicholas Ashford.

Ashford, also Professor of Technology & Policy at MIT, is clearly distressed as misinformation continues to proliferate through every aspect of the media. It’s not just social media that’s at fault, he said, cable news, television, talk radio, and the print media are equally responsible for spreading falsehoods and half-truths, and for not encouraging serious debate.

Ashford said the scope of misinformation and disinformation — ranging from COVID vaccination and masking disputes, to climate change deniers, and the challenges of global migration and poverty — is widespread and growing.

Antitrust Shortcomings

At a recent MIT IDE seminar, Ashford offered solutions to counter these trends and he also disputed the effectiveness of some popular solutions — like antitrust and social media reforms — that he believes fall short.

Revision of antitrust laws alone is “wrong-headed” and won’t solve the larger problems of free speech or of misinformation.

Allowing companies like Facebook to self-regulate or set up their own oversight boards isn’t helpful, either, he said.

Ashford also refutes the belief that corporate concerns outweigh the greater good. For example, antitrust remedies focus too much on the effects on markets and innovation while overlooking the fact that “a concentration of economic power gives rise to concentrated political power.”

A More Fair Fairness Doctrine

What will work? Ashford’s favored approach is reviving, strengthening, and expanding the U. S. Fairness Doctrine beyond its original application to TV and talk-radio.

As he wrote in a recent New York Times op ed, Congress should seriously consider reviving the Fairness Doctrine — gutted in 1987 by President Regan — which required media companies to present alternative points of view on issues of public interest.

“This effort would be premised on the public’s right to be informed, rather than on the government controlling free speech. And it should be coupled with the appointment of public commissions or citizen juries that would provide independent oversight to confront misinformation in online and broadcast media. These independent bodies would include respected experts, could be appointed by the government, and would be funded by industry.”

Ashford wrote that “a reimagined and expanded version of this policy could enable independent bodies to review inaccurate material and require that technology platforms and broadcast media publish and respond to criticism.”

He also supports increased fact-checking by independent bodies, and mandates to present more reliable perspectives. Because of the reinforcing influence one medium has on another, reforms must include the platform and the broadcast industries, as well as print media.

Clashes over truth can be traced back to how people learn and absorb information. How do we know what we know?

“Neuroscience tells us that people tend to gravitate toward news and information that reinforces prior impressions, values, and opinions — what is known as anchoring or confirmation bias,” Ashford said.

And even when they’re exposure to balanced coverage, it tends to reinforce those prior views.

“Recognizing propaganda is critical,” and along with fostering more critical thinking it has to be taught early on in classes about civics and how governments and society works. The job of regulatory agencies, for instance, is barely discussed or understood by most people yet those decisions have significant effect on many aspects of our lives, Ashford said.

10 Proposals to Stem Misinformation

  1. Lawsuits to protect freedom of speech (many have failed)
  2. Greater regulation of advertising
  3. Soft-monitoring regulation (i.e. Facebook)
  4. Industry oversight boards (i.e. Facebook)
  5. Revision of antitrust law and enforcement (i.e. EU)
  6. Removal of liability immunity of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. (hard to prove ‘harm’)
  7. Revision and expansion of the Fairness Doctrine
  8. Creation of a private and expanded Fairness Doctrine
  9. Shifting toward more vigorous debates with cross-examination and interrogation
  10. Encouragement of critical thinking as part of education reform

Watch the MIT IDE seminar video here.

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MIT IDE Paula Klein, Editor

MIT IDE Paula Klein, Editor

Addressing one of the most critical issues of our time: the impact of digital technology on businesses, the economy, and society.