In the struggle between free speech and democracy, misinformation won, says expert

Person holding tablet with the word "fake" displayed in large letters across a news site.

Facebook and Twitter’s efforts to ban Trump are “too little too late,” says information literacy expert Heidi Julien

Release Date: January 7, 2021

Portrait of Heidi Julien.
“Misinformation is a widespread problem that will be difficult to tackle on the societal level with the U.S.’ emphasis on free speech. There must be a balance between first amendment rights and the greater good. ”
Heidi Julien, professor of information science in the UB Graduate School of Education

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The misinformation that led to the siege of the United States Capitol by rioters on Wednesday has made it clear that freedom of speech currently outweighs societal good in the U.S., says University at Buffalo information literacy expert Heidi Julien.

Julien, PhD, professor of information science in the UB Graduate School of Education, is available to discuss misinformation and the role of social media and politicians in its spread, as well as the importance of information literacy in curbing the spread of misinformation.

Election misinformation – including claims that the general election was stolen – has proven to be a threat on democracy, says Julien. She adds that political leaders and the executives of social media companies bear responsibility for the rampant spread of falsehoods.

“Half-baked attempts by Facebook and Twitter to label misinformation or ban people who disseminate misinformation is too little too late,” says Julien. “It’s unethical for their CEOs to throw up their hands and say all they do is provide a platform and it’s not their job to police information. They have a responsibility to make sure their platforms aren’t used to spread misinformation or terrorize people.”

Lawmakers must use legislative means to clamp down on social media companies and media organizations that spread dangerous lies, as well as push back against misinformation through public statements, says Julien.

“Misinformation is a widespread problem that will be difficult to tackle on the societal level with the U.S.’ emphasis on free speech,” she says. “There must be a balance between First Amendment rights and the greater good.”

Teaching students to detect a lie from first grade

Educating the next generation to spot misinformation is one way to help solve the problem, says Julien.

Beginning with the first grade, information literacy should be incorporated across curriculums, with students learning how to identify bias and credible sources, as well as build trust in science and academic experts, she says. Students should also be tested on these skills, she says, noting schools tend to focus classroom time on information that appears on standardized tests.

“These are lifelong skills. It’s easy to forget facts taught in school, but media and information literacy skills are what allow you to be a functioning member of an open democracy,” says Julien, adding that many students are not taught these skills until they reach college.

However, before school curriculums can be changed, teachers must first be educated on information literacy. Surprisingly, says Julien, many teachers don’t learn information literacy in their training.

Julien credits Finland and Sweden as prime examples of nations that successfully incorporated information literacy into school core curriculums.

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