“District Attorney Chesa Boudin and his liberal crime policy are letting convicted felons walk in the city of San Francisco.” If you’re a citizen of San Francisco, this dramatic headline, whether through your local newspaper or social media outlet,  probably found its way to your dinner table. 

In reality, Chesa Boudin is working towards the goal of decarceration of convicted criminals who are serving time for nonviolent crime and are victims of racism and nativism within the criminal justice system. Many read a headline similar to the one above and fall victim to defamation through fake news. 

When the founders of the United States laid forth the constitution, they did so to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for American citizens. Under this assertion is the protection of free speech, press, and assembly, but what happens when the right to freedom of speech leads to defamation and disinformation? “How am I supposed to react as a citizen of San Francisco when I read there are violent criminals on every corner? Am I supposed to believe this because my trusted media source released this information?” Beck Lorsch ‘25 questioned in an interview with The Politic. We have a serious and growing problem in today’s world as distrust in the media and polarization of the American people steadily grows. 

In a New York Times article about fake news and polarization, Yale University social psychologist William J. Brady says, “media has changed, the environment has changed, and that has a potentially big impact on our natural behavior.” The rise of fake news comes hand in hand with the rise of technology and social media. It provides a platform for further distrust and grouping. However, our society no longer supports a divided world. We no longer need to be afraid of those who share different opinions to survive. The sooner we realize that exchanging ideas out of growth is better than out of fear, the better chance we have of keeping political disinformation to an extreme low.

When freedom of speech is replaced by censorship, we arrive at an intersection of tyranny that is centralized news. There are examples of centralized news all throughout the world, including within the US. However, one-party states like China present examples impossible to overlook. Centralized news is most prevalent in China with the Chinese Central Television network (CCTV): a Chinese state-controlled broadcast run by the Chinese Communist Party. China has been dealing with government censorship and civil unrest for many years now, best illustrated through the conflict between civilians and government officials leading to, among other things, violent protests in mid-2019. “There’s a reason we have separation of our government and the press, and I think that will always be a good thing,” former president of Yale Political Union and member of the Independent Party Jeff Cieslikowski ’22 said in an interview with The Politic. The quickest way to dismantle a democracy is giving a branch of government too much power. The federal government could easily establish a tyrannical reign over its citizens if given the power of unitary press. A heterogeneous society will never be able to function under a centralized news source. Where there are differing cultures, norms, and ethics, there are different ideologies. As a member of democracy, it is important to uplift the diverse array of opinions shared by your citizens, not suppress them. 

While fake news is something that can and should be combated, it will always exist in one form or another in a democratic society. With that being said, there are still practical ways of subduing fake news and promoting a balance of free speech. 

As we grow, it is important to stop and reevaluate our core values as a nation. We are no longer what we were in 1787; the principles on which our founding documents were written are outdated. Factors propelling our society away from previous centuries like big tech, big pharma, and big law were not around and certainly would have created different foundational documents. Today, we see factions much differently — as political groups communicating through somewhat open political discourse. What must be regulated are not factions but these growing institutions which foster an ecosystem consisting of defamation and disinformation.

When asked about his city of Melbourne, Australia in an interview with The Politic, Bo Sergeant ’25 said that “while we do have a problem with fake news and all its derivatives, most Australian citizens are willing to sacrifice their personal liberties for the good of national security.” This is a sacrifice that Americans are not ready to make. When creating the Constitution, one of the concerns of the founders was keeping our democracy as far away from the hands of a king. This led to checks and balances through the system of federalism, overtly removing the possibility of too much executive power. However, it’s been over 230 years since they laid pen to paper, and our executive branch still (even through multiple expansions of power) has an underwhelming amount of power. Instead, the legislative branch has supreme authority to regulate and create. So, why do we still debate over our liberties? What do our liberties, especially freedom of speech, actually entail? 

“There’s a difference between individuals sharing personal thoughts versus widespread thoughts,” Cieslikowski said when asked about the difference between freedom of speech and defamation. I am allowed to turn to my friend and pull a harmless prank on them. However if I run into a theatre shouting “Fire! Fire!” — that is defamation, not politically protected speech. It is for this reason that companies such as Facebook should have no problem censoring harmful speech plaguing their platform. 

“As a citizen of Australia, we seem to understand this better than most Americans…I don’t feel oppressed when my liberties are sacrificed for the benefit of security. I understand my ability to share my thoughts without disturbing a community susceptible to disinformation” Sergeant shared. This doesn’t mean Australia, and other countries for that matter, don’t have their own problems; it just means that we need to recognize our inner biases and tendency to disagree while also fostering a safe environment for political discourse. 

Whether or not we can combat fake news simply depends on the regulations of media platforms like Facebook. A vast majority of eligible adult voters get their information from social media platforms. According to Pew Research Center, this majority is close to 90 percent, as a study regarding social media consumption stated “more than eight-in-ten U.S. adults say they get news from a smartphone, computer or tablet ‘often’ or ‘sometimes.’” 

One of the few ways we can tame fake news and disinformation is by regulating the spread of disinformation online. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, companies like Facebook have worked to reduce the number of public falsehoods spread regarding the vaccine. Using code that allows them to target keywords under users’ posts, Facebook was able to flag misinformation and disinformation. This same concept can be used to reduce fake news about other areas of government, like electoral processes.

Social media censorship does, by no means, dictate a trampling of first amendment liberties. By promoting the regulation of disinformation online, companies such as Facebook would help spread the benefits of free speech. Fake news is a dishonest politician’s regalia, shielding them from any sort of authenticity and morality. There is nothing free about dishonesty and defamation. Politicians that lie to their constituents to gain traction for reelection aren’t patriots, and they aren’t engaged American citizens. Our founders didn’t live in a world of social media and definitely didn’t have Prometheus’s forethought when it came to technology, but they did realize that the Constitution needed to adapt to the world around it. They realized the yearning to belong was stronger than fact, and everyone needs to belong. 

There has always been a fear of factions and the ability to control factions in our United States. In Federalist 10 — one of a series of persuasive papers written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton to convince states to ratify the Constitution — Madison shares his concern with factions. However, he stated that “there are again two methods of removing the causes of faction; the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” A hypothetical world where all people had the same opinion (an oxymoronic statement for the word opinion) is the only ecosystem that could support centralized news. This hypothetical world does not entertain the idea of free speech that makes democracy necessary. 

We must realize that Madison’s goal was not to dismantle factions but instead use them to our benefit. The solution Madison came up with is similar to the idea of a two-party system — a system where one party will never have supreme power. Both sides of the political spectrum are constantly battling each other for representation and ideological dominance, and, somewhere within the conflict, disinformation arises. “Any kind of regulation aimed at fake news would extend the exchange of ideas,” Cieslikowski said. 

By embracing our differences as a nation, we can fully combat the polarization plaguing our cities and citizens. A solution to an impossible problem is almost always simple, and, in this case, all we need to do is talk to one another. It would be unfair to label this problem as simple. Every human suffers from the draining commodity that is opinion, but collaboration is impossible with agreement off the table. 

Bias will never be fully regulated. It is something that every human has — whether they choose to recognize it or not. By allowing bias to exist, we can further facilitate the exchange of ideas on grounds that do not serve as disinformation. We have objective truth, and we have subjective opinions. The better we can combine these and clear the way for who gets to tell the truth, the better our community will be for it. Who gets to tell the truth has always been complex. Historically speaking, the “winner” tells the truth in the history books. Our own accounts of American history are therefore riddled with bias. “There will always be disinformation, as there are always different people with different opinions. The goal is to regulate it as best as we can,” Cieslikowski said.

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