Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) told her social media followers earlier this week that Democrats in Congress might respond to the Capitol riot with some sort of "media literacy" initiative.
The phrase media literacy ordinarily implies helping individuals make sense of the media landscape, but AOC seems to have more in mind than that: She suggested "we're going to have to figure out how we rein in our media environment so that you can't just spew disinformation and misinformation."
AOC suggests adding "media literacy" as a mandate for a congressional "truth and reconciliation" committee pic.twitter.com/sv7UXMwvaO
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) January 13, 2021
It's true that both traditional media and social media sometimes spread "disinformation and misinformation." But the federal government has no formal role to play in suppressing its spread. The First Amendment explicitly bars Congress from infringing on freedom of the press or freedom of speech, and the Supreme Court has recognized no exceptions for disinformation. If the government could ban disinformation, after all, it could use that as a cover for banning speech that is not actually false but merely critical of the government, or of specific politicians. Recall that Democrats swiftly denounced The New York Post's report on Hunter Biden's foreign connections as "disinformation," even though many underlying aspects of the story have since been confirmed.
Social media platforms are currently struggling with how to identify disinformation and what actions against it are appropriate. Certain subjects—such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election results—are aggressively policed, while other misleading content is left alone. Users have every right to criticize these decisions, but ultimately Twitter and Facebook are private companies with the right to set their own moderation policies. They can prohibit speech they define as misinformation. Congress can't.
In suggesting a role for the government to regulate the media's speech, AOC is echoing comments made by numerous right-wing figures—most notably President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly called for changing libel laws to make it easier for maligned officials to sue the press. Trump has also made threats against newspapers for covering his presidency negatively. It's critical that the law not be changed; the media must be free to vigorously criticize the president, Congress, or any other aspect of the government, even if the reporting is sometimes wrong or off-base. Similarly, addressing disinformation should be a job for private platforms and individual readers, not the government.
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