Where is the Balance Between Free Expression and Harmful Online Misinformation?

And more importantly, who will decide?

How do Americans weigh a core value like free expression against the downsides that come with harmful content and misinformation online? A new report by Gallup and Knight Foundation, released June 16, explores attitudes toward key issues in tech policy, including content moderation, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and approaches to industry self-governance like Facebook’s Oversight Board. This new study provides a springboard for tech companies, government and citizens like to advance a conversation about free expression online.

The above was the intro blurb/advertisement for a seminar I attended last week by the Gallup organization and the Knight Foundation. They’ve been doing a series of programs with interesting and relevant data from Gallup combined with insightful commentary by experts.

Image for post
Image for post
“Pinched” — Drawing by the author. Pencil on paper, 1969.

At the heart of this issue is a very real problem. Who decides? Who decides what is and is not acceptable “free speech”?

Because all of these social media platforms are accessible to all, there is a sense of responsibility that accompanies their use. And then there are the darker aspects of this issue. For example, when Facebook or Twitter or Reddit post content that hurts other people, should these people be allowed to sue Facebook, Twitter and Google?

Currently there is a section of the law called Section 230 that prohibits suing the platforms. 66% of the public favors keeping Section 230 as is. But a full one-third want to eliminate that.

Heather Moore from Facebook was one of the speakers addressing questions about governance of content. In 2019 Facebook established an independent board designed to hold Facebook accountable for their rules in this area. She said they chose an independent board because people don’t trust government. Politics has become polarized and rules inconsistent.

Gallup/Knight assembled a lengthy report which I will link to at the end, but here are a few highlights of note.

Nearly all Americans (98%) say child pornography should never be allowed on social media, and particularly relevant today, 85% say misleading health information also should be prohibited.

The Executive Summary states:

Many Americans have personally been targeted by harmful online behavior. — Of the types of harms people experience online, Americans most frequently cite being called offensive names (44%). More than 1 in 3 (35%) say someone has tried to purposefully embarrass them online, 18% have been physically threatened, and 15% have been sexually harassed.


Fully 3 in 10 Americans (31%) have requested a social media or internet company remove a post made by someone else they considered harmful, and 21% have had a post they made removed by a social media or internet company.

Those numbers perhaps help put a little perspective on things. But then there is the issue of trust. Can the social media companies be trusted to make good decisions? 44% of Americans do not have a lot of faith in the social media folks to make trustworthy decisions and 40% don’t trust them at all.

It must be challenging for the companies because nearly half say they are not tough enough and others say they are too tough.

When it comes to free expression, 52% of Democrats say that people should have freedom to express their views and 76% of Republicans feel this way. Neither party believes in unlimited free expression.

The report is available for downland and a worthwhile snapshot of an important issue today. You can find it here: Free Expression, Harmful Speech and Censorship in a Digital World

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store