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Social Media, Freedom of Speech and the Future of Our Democracy

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Social Media, Freedom of Speech and the Future of Our Democracy

Oxford UP,

15 min read
7 take-aways
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Leading scholars, lawyers, politicians and journalists consider social media’s threat to democracy – and how to counter it.

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In this collection of essays, edited by Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger and University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey R. Stone, 34 distinguished scholars, lawyers, politicians and journalists consider one of the weightiest questions of our day: amid the rise of social media, how to protect the public interest – and democracy itself – while preserving free speech. Social media companies have no incentive to drive change, the authors argue; therefore, industry, government and the general public will need to work together to avert disaster. The volume includes a report prepared by a commission of leaders in politics, academia and journalism setting out a program of reforms.


The rise of social media is prompting questions about how to protect the public interest and preserve free speech at the same time.

Although social media platforms are broadening public discourse, empowering marginalized people and fostering new communities, they also facilitate the viral spread of harmful speech: misinformation, disinformation, defamation, promotion of self-harm and much more. Harmful speech has always existed, but social media platforms provide online spaces and powerful algorithms that filter, curate and spread harmful speech faster and wider than ever.

Harmful speech in the form of disinformation threatens democracy by undermining trust in public institutions and the process of building consensus. In contrast to misinformation, which contains simple falsehoods, disinformation consists of falsehoods spread intentionally to achieve some objective – usually political or financial. For example, voter fraud allegations surrounding the 2020 election spread rapidly through social media, reducing trust in the election process. These false allegations contributed to motivating the people who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.


About the Authors

Lee C. Bollinger is the outgoing president of Columbia University, the longest serving president in Ivy League history. He is Seth Low Professor at Columbia Law School, and one of the nation’s foremost First Amendment scholars. Geoffrey R. Stone is Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago. Contributors to the book include Emily Bazelon, Cass R. Sunstein, Lawrence Lessig and David A. Strauss, among many others.

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