Discussions about misinformation, censorship, and big tech social media platforms have been prominent in the news lately. The convergence of the six-month anniversary of the January 6th Capitol insurrection, ongoing debates about the origins of Covid-19 in the Senate, and the Biden administration’s failure to reach the stated goal for national vaccination all play into the discussion about the role and responsibility of big tech’s dissemination of information.
Misinformation and Manipulation
While the government cannot censor your right to free speech private companies can. That’s why the government is leaning heavily on big tech to do so. In other words, the government is indirectly trying to control free speech under the guise of the spread of misinformation and legal action against social media providers. But, let’s pause and consider the government’s role in misinformation from the highest level, our Presidents:
Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs
Johnson and all the misinformation about the Vietnam War
Nixon and everything having to do with Watergate
Reagan and the Iran Contra Affair
Bush Sr. telling voters, “Read my lips. No new taxes.”
Clinton’s denials about Monica Lewinsky
Bush and WMDs in Iraq
Obama saying dozens of times everyone could keep their healthcare
Trump…take your pick
Misinformation and the manipulation of information are not limited to big tech social media platforms, not by a long shot. Plenty of both go on in podcasts, over text, in phone calls, etc. As someone who strives to teach people how to ethically influence people, misinformation and manipulation anger me. But the answer is not to put the government thumb on social media and censor you and me.
For most of my life I’ve heard about the ACLU defending the right for Nazi’s to march in different communities under the guise of free speech. I’ve known veterans who’ve said, “I don’t agree with what you said but I’ll die for your right to say it.” Freedom to share our ideas and thoughts is a constitutional right in this country.
Censorship seldom works because there’s a principle of influence that comes into play – scarcity. Humans naturally value things more when they believe they are rare or possibly going away. There are numerous studies that show this. In one study with mock juries, when told to disregard certain information because it was irrelevant and therefore inadmissible, that jury award was 46% higher than another jury that never heard about the information. Don’t think about elephants – the very command causes you to do exactly that in the moment and likely for some time.
Censored books and movies usually enjoy a bounce in sales. After all, if someone, some group, or the government, doesn’t want us to know about certain information then many people will assume it must be good, important, relevant or have some element of truth to it. If you’ve raised kids, you’ve seen this. The moment you say they can’t touch it, watch it, listen to it, or play with it that’s all they want to touch, watch, listen to or play with!
What about Truth?
What if the information that’s deemed inappropriate turns out to be true? If the kinds of restrictions being proposed were in place in some form or fashion in the past we’d probably be worse off because we wouldn’t have gotten to the truth in many scandals.
How will you react the next time there’s a shift in power and a new administration deems your viewpoint misinformed and attempts to restrict it? No party will remain in power indefinitely and what goes around comes around. We’ve been seeing this tit for tat more and more with our political parties. Of course, each side justifies it because they always believe they own the moral high ground. The approach of any party to restrict speech will come back to haunt them and will cause more polarization.
What’s the Answer?
I don’t know the answer but I’m not an elected official so it’s not my job to spend countless hours trying to figure it out. Having said that, I feel strongly that I know what the answer is not and that’s some form of censorship. Censorship is not seeing the forest for the trees. Those who censor might get what they want in the short run but I think we will all lose in the long run.
Brian Ahearn is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, TEDx speaker, international trainer, coach, and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the science of ethical influence.
Brian’s first book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, was named one of the 100 Best Influence Books of All Time by BookAuthority. His second book, Persuasive Selling for Relationship Driven Insurance Agents, was an Amazon new release bestseller in several categories.
Brian’s LinkedIn Learning courses on persuasive selling and coaching have been viewed by more than 385,000 people around the world.