12 min read

Should Social Media Fact-Check?

Should Social Media Fact-Check?
Photo by Agence Olloweb / Unsplash

As a self-professed man of science, I'm a big fan of facts. Like most, I believe preserving truth is essential. It's best to be truthful in our relationships, professional life and academic work. This relatively, acceptable belief has become more polarized as one's perception of truth intertwines with moral standing. One's standing on topics such as climate change, vaccines, and elections are rarely areas for rational debate nowadays, and more likely battlefields for moral attacks. Like truth, skepticism, when practiced deliberately and honestly, is another healthy practice for living. However, when discussing polarized topics today, skepticism is abandoned  for unfaltering belief. It seems that we have paradoxically become hyper concerned with the truth yet defensive when discussing it.

But, this fixation on fact and truth is warranted. The 2016 United States' presidential race was one saturated with debates over who was less deceptive, the Republican Party nominee and then businessman, Donald J. Trump or the Democratic Party nominee and then former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Media consumers were stuffed with breaking news on sexual assault allegations and racial discrimination claims against (now former president) Trump. Only to be further overwhelmed by headlines over Clinton's email scandals and Benghazi failings. It was in 2016 when the term "fake news" started to peak alongside discussions regarding social media's role in (mis)information spread. Three years later, in 2019, social media sites such as Instagram started to implement "fact-checks".

Google search results for "fact-check" since 2004.

Today, Instagram often places warnings, which appear as red banners, on posts that share false information. I've seen these warnings on a handful of posts since their inception, many related to political statements and the COVID19 pandemic and even a few stamped on top of satirical memes. My most recent encounter of this fact check warning was in a meme about lobsters (I can't explain it, sorry). Although comical, this lobster post caused me to reevaluate what I undoubtedly accepted. I began to truly question, should social media fact-check?

To address this question, we must consider both sides of the argument and refrain from narrowing the scope of the dilemma. That includes immediate answers such as "yes, because lies are bad" and "no, because freedom of speech". Initially, I belonged in the first camp and internally believed that most challenging beliefs were inherently rejecting science. I too find myself subscribing to dangerously linking belief with morality without completely understanding the problem. I rationalized, if you didn't agree with fact-checking then, you must not agree with facts. However, the glaring issue with this thought is that it ignores the underlying intricacy of the question when considering the entire scope of social media communication. It should be stated that his assessment does not consider the efficacy of fact-checks on either side of the debate. To me, supporting or rejecting fact-checks is not a discussion of capability but of necessity and ethicality. Thus, to answer should social media fact check? we must consider both sides of the argument and how they fair when considering the complexities of misinformation spread, the role of social media, and censorship and silencing.

Misinformation Spread

In May 2018, Facebook unveiled their remove, reduce, and inform strategy to stop the spread of misinformation. Unsurprisingly, this strategy involves implementations of fact-checkers to which Facebook supports by stating that on average, [fact checkers] cuts future views [of false posts] by more than 80% (link). However, when addressing whether social media platforms should fact-check we must first address the validity the objective to prevent misinformation spread.

Against: Misinformation is Inherently Human

There is an argument to be made that misinformation is inherently human. In our non-digital life natural conversation isn't necessarily truthful. Even a simple 10 minute conversation can feature two to three lies. If this is the case, why should truth be expected more within the digital space? In the non-digital world it is often the recipient of the lies that identifies the falsehoods and initiates any consequences upon the liar. For example, if I lied to my friend that I couldn't watch his dog because I was busy, consequences like an angry friend can only ensue if I was caught in the lie. Fortunately for us, white lies are not monitored by third-party fact-checkers. Yet, for some reason, fact-checking has invaded the digital world. Additionally, one could argue that the casual lies we tell daily are incomparable to the power that digital misinformation possesses. However, when considering misinformation as inherently human, like in the physical world, the uptake of misinformation should be managed by the recipients.

For: Social Media is Incomparable to the Physical World

Although misinformation is inherently human and any attempts to fact-check does contradict norms of the physical world, the digital world has grown to become incomparable. The argument of inherent human misinformation fails to address the virality of social media posts that trump in-person communication. Social media's power as a platform exists because of its wide base of users and the ease of communication amongst them. Statistica reports that in 2020 there were over 3.6 billion social network users worldwide. Considering such, misinformation now can be spread quicker and to a wider audience in the digital space. This dilemma multiplies when considering that users within social networks without fact-checks have the unregulated potential to post viral misinformation. Misinformation is inherently human, and fact-checking is inherently inhuman, but social media communication has introduced an entirely new form of communication that warrants such measures.

Whether one is in favor of fact-checks or not, there is nearly universal agreement that social media communication is different from our natural forms. The disagreement stems from the extent of social media's differences and the role it should or should not play in our lives.

The Role of Social Media

Social media has become so inextricable with our lives that the boundaries between the digital and physical life are blurred. It has grown beyond a simple networking tool as it now possesses the power to manipulate political outcomes and engulf our time. Consequently, assessing whether fact-checks should be implemented in social media must be preceded by clear definitions of what social media is and what role it should play in regulating platform communication. Support and resistance of social media fact-checks can be narrowed down to either believing that social media is an extension of basic human communication or exists as a unique entity altogether.

Against: The Mall Analogy

Social media is an extension of basic human communication if we view social media platforms like local hangout locations such as a mall, for example. In our mall analogy, there a people who share stories about their lives and hear the stories of others. These mall-goers can talk to whomever they please or simply browse around to either window-shop or to make purchases. As you may have inferred, in this analogy, the mall is the social media platform, the people are the users, and the communication or shopping is platform activity. With this logic, what is social media other than an extension of the physical world? Yes, the speed of communication and userbase is faster and larger than any mall, but the core principles remain the same. Thus, if we never fact-checked in malls (or nearly anywhere else of leisure) in the physical world, why should these platforms be treated differently. What social media is in this case, is a convenient mode of communication and leisure and nothing more.

With that same logic, social media's role is to maintain peace and usability. Like the employees of a mall, whether it's staff or officers, social media platforms have a role to maintain themselves as virtual commonplaces and enforce good behavior via terms and conditions that nobody reads. One may argue that the mall analogy fails to consider platforms as news sources, which is the biggest reason for fact-checkers. However, if you can be politically informed by a friend or stranger unobstructed in public, why not online? Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself stated that social networks shouldn't be arbiters of truth.

For: The Nation Analogy

The direct counter to the mall analogy of social media platforms is the belief that the technology exists as an even greater entity than an extension of basic communication. A mall is no longer a mall once communication is instant and infinite, and even less so when people’s voices aren't heard and promoted equally. In a podcast episode with entrepreneur and presidential candidate Andrew Yang, author and social media figure Hank Green compared social media platforms closer to independent nations rather than hangout spots. Green, who wrote two science fiction books on the topic, claims that social media platforms have become not unlike nations. These nation-like entities have a digital populous who share ideas and knowledge that are managed by laws in the form of algorithms and user conditions. It is these laws that determine which posts are "for you" and which social groups are allowed to exist. As a result, social media is a large contributor of our world view. Unlike the mall analogy, that considers all voices equally heard, the nation view of social media acknowledges that individual users/accounts and their posts can influence the behaviors of millions. Unfortunately for Zuckerberg, maybe he doesn't want social networks to be arbiters of truth, but they are certainly arbiters of tremendous power - as Uncle Ben (and Voltaire) would concur - and thus, great responsibility.

The social media nation analogy not only acknowledge that society influencing posts are inevitable but emphasizes the responsibility its "leaders" have on its users’ wellbeing. Like a true nation, objectives such as happiness, health and prosperity should likely be some goals for these platforms. Although the objective of social media is another point of contention, our digital nation should certainly promote truth for the health of society. As a digital nation, social media platforms have the responsibility to prevent groups from harming the public and the platform's stability. Thus, fact-checkers should be implemented so that the users are well-informed to make decisions that benefit the society. Whilst this does make these platforms somewhat "arbiters of truth", the role of social media dictates it as such since they now exist as inextricable forces in personal and worldly matters. Currently, the objective of many platforms is to maximize user activity, an approach understood to increase polarization. If social media fails to implement fact-checks and continue to solely maximize engagement, this trend will surely progress. Rejecting fact-checks does not preserve human communication. At best, it polarizes the digital nation, at worst it disrupts the world.

Whether you side with the mall or nation analogy of social media, or somewhere in between, one important aspect unassessed are the capabilities of the users. Do social media platforms assume that users are capable enough to combat false narratives while still considering outside perspectives? Or do they assume that users are incapable of overcoming their biases and compelling falsities? The mall view of social media inherently assumes that users are capable, while the nation view admits that user incapability stems from the power of social media platforms and the influence of other users. The role of social media is undeniably linked to the expectations of its users, which is potentially an even harder question to answer.

It is difficult to clearly define the expected capabilities of the users when the same users can't agree upon how to address misinformation spread and defining social media. Even with agreeance on those two points, one's view regarding digital censorship and silencing still complicates the debate over whether social media should fact check.

Censorship and Silencing

Debates over fact-checkers rarely fail to discuss censorship and silencing. Opinion articles fear that fact-checks damage journalism and free speech, calling many to fact-check the fact-checkers. Recently, Facebook has retracted the February 2021 ban on posts asserting that COVID-19 was man-made. The ban was reversed impart because "US intelligence sources believe there is some evidence to warrant further investigation of the lab leak theory." This situation warrants us to consider the extent (if any at all) to which social media fact-checks can censor and silence.

Against: Fact-Checks Endanger Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech is a concept upheld by around 150 nations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Although the degree of freedom of speech varies, in general, these nations protect individual thought and reject censorship. The United States, where many social media platforms originate, are especially obsessed with this freedom, leading many to believe that fact-checks can infringe on this inalienable right. By retracting their own ban, Facebook has proven that they will exercise their power to change global narratives, regardless of absolute certainty. While it's certainly reasonable to ban posts and groups inciting violence (which Facebook has also done), the idea that social media can classify speculative posts as misinformation is unsettling. While today, this concern is usually tied to COVID-19 and not too long ago, the claimed "stolen" US election, there seems to be little barriers preventing social media platforms from staking a position on more factually ambiguous topics. The line between opinion and proposed fact can easily blur and there is reasonable worry to believe that that line can be misinterpreted by fact-checks.

For example, if social media figures posts claims that universal basic income (UBI) is a terrible idea, there is ambiguity on whether the post is protected as non-fact-checkable because it is a fact OR because it is an opinion. Are such claims safe because of a fact based argument, or because they are opinions not detrimental to society? If the latter, one could argue that UBI is a necessary tool to combating the wealth gap and stifling support only damages the 54% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. With those arguments, how do we clearly define opinion? and consequently, what content should be fact-checked? Therefore, the concern with social media fact-checking is the immense ambiguity of the task. A task of which they should not even be qualified to hold given it includes an unchecked ability to alter global narratives.

For: Fact-Checks Can Maintain Freedom of Speech

Those supporting social media fact-checks will claim that only damaging and outright false posts will be impacted, which thus, maintains free virtual speech. A clear example of this is Twitter's permanent suspension of @realDonaldTrump following the Capitol Riot attack. False claims of an "illegitimates election" incited an act of domestic terrorism and posed a threat to society by glorifying violence. Even setting its falsity aside, the freedom of speech defense fails to acknowledge the weight certain users and posts have. The first amendment protects citizens with little individual political power, however, it must be applied differently when considering individuals with millions of followers. The idea of freedom of speech wasn't created when the ability to influence millions instantaneously and effortlessly was around. Like the nation analogy for social media acknowledges, who shares information is just as important as the information's content.   Unfortunately, even if there was universal agreement on only fact-checking outliers, there will still be debate over whether the fact-checks were justified.

While there is no doubt that determining the factuality of virtual content is difficult, the task is not solely social media platforms to make. In December 2019, Instagram posted an announcement titled Combatting Misinformation on Instagram, where they introduced their new partnerships with third party fact-checkers. It is these independent fact-checkers that determine the quality of content, not individual platforms. While it's far from regulated, there is potential for a future where well agreed upon laws determine when a post should be fact-checked and/or removed. These laws could also best redefine free speech in the context of a digital world muddled with the complexity of instant audience reach and innumerable followers.


I initially tackled the question “Should social media fact check?” to validate my immediate support. I planned to do diligent research and be comforted by the fact that I was right. But my (shameful) conformation bias was thwarted by the nuance of the issue. I considered both sides of the argument and how they faired when considering three common discussion points related to fact-checks: misinformation spread, the role of social media, and censorship and silencing. During this assessment, separate sub debates such as the extent to which misinformation is inherently human and how we should define social media and its role, quickly arose. Attending those debates didn’t even begin to address fears of censorship and silencing, which is often the core of most fact-check discussion.

Unsurprisingly, I conclude assessing a complicated topic by saying, “it’s complicated”, like most socio-political things. However, that’s not to say I don’t have an (ever-developing) opinion. The quick answer is, yes, I support fact checking but, with a giant asterisk. I believe that misinformation is inherently human, but that consideration must be sidelined when discussing the inhuman technology of social media. I more closely align with the nation-like view of these platforms which is unfortunately accompanied by a fear of their inextricability in our lives. As a result, I still debate over what we as users should be expected of. On one hand I believe we should be responsible for considering other perspectives, and on the other I also recognize that our behavior can be manipulated in the digital landscape. The ambiguity of the user’s role in social media is comparable to the ambiguity that comes with clearly defining lines for factuality and opinion. Regardless, I do believe there should be systems established to prevent any one individual or post from harming society.

So, although I support fact-checks in social media, I’m left with more questions than I entered with. But I think that is the best way forward. It was through assessing both sides of the argument that I could identify key sub-debates that help us understand how we can step closer to an effective and utilitarian solution to misinformation and regulating social media posts. What degree of misinformation is acceptable and how do we detect it? and what are our expectations as users of social media platforms? are all questions still left untangled.

I hope I provided a (relatively) unbiased assessment of the topic. My goal was not to convince you that social media should fact-check. Rather, my goal was for you to now intensely question the side you immediately selected. Like I mentioned in the introduction, I believe deliberate skepticism is as necessary as truth and should be employed to modify individual opinion when necessary. Today, the extent of social media fact-checks and surrounding debate are still in their infancy. Yet, despite great disagreement within both sides of the argument there is a common belief that this is a crucial issue that users should have a say in. So, if we can agree on that fundamental point, I believe there is hope for a democratized solution.

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