>>Twitter Blue Controversy Shows...
By Scott Baradell
The recent launch of Twitter Blue by Elon Musk has ignited heated reactions and further exacerbated already-existing polarization on the popular social media platform. While it remains unclear how the move will impact Musk’s bottom line, what is clear is that the billionaire’s blustery “free speech absolutism” will do nothing to combat the toxic partisanship and widespread distrust in media that has decimated public discourse in the United States. It provides urgent evidence that legislative solutions are needed to update outdated laws and educate the public on the importance of valuing diverse perspectives.
The blue verification mark, introduced by Twitter in 2009 as a way to highlight high-profile accounts for users, has since been adopted by other social media platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook. However, Musk's move to only offer Twitter verification badges to paying Twitter Blue subscribers has led to the stripping of blue checks from thousands of celebrities, journalists, and businesses. The result is that it is more difficult for users to discern which Twitter accounts are credible and which are not—making the platform more chaotic than ever for users.
Twitter Blue is a microcosm of the current failures of American public discourse. As a result of a series of ill-fated policy decisions—most notably the elimination of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996—a delicate system of checks and balances in the media landscape fell away, leading to a media environment in which success is measured exclusively by bottom-line profits. That has led incrementally to an embrace of extremes: substantive talk shows became one-sided shoutfests, social media algorithms perfected the art of pulling users down partisan rabbit holes, and clearly biased “analysis” began to pose as news reporting for more provocative headlines and clicks.
Fox News and CNN are examples of how political agendas are present in today's media. Fox is widely seen as the only major national outlet conservatives trust, whereas CNN is popular among Democrats. Even if political bias is denied, many well-known publications disseminate news without proper context. Providing a balanced view of an event is no longer important for national news. Because the media neglects to show the whole picture, distrust of the media is at an all-time high in the US. In 2022, 53% of Americans said they do not trust the media. The same amount of people view national news sources as deliberately manipulative and misleading.
It’s no coincidence that toxic partisan attitudes have proliferated during this period. About three times as many Republicans view Democrats “very unfavorably” today as in 1995, the year before the Telecom Act’s passage. Democrats, meanwhile, are about twice as likely to view Republicans “very unfavorably” as they did in 1995. We can only expert things to worsen in a digital environment where shunning another group is as easy as filtering, blocking, and deleting.
It didn’t used to be this way—and not just because of advances in technology. Legislative neglect has been the real culprit. Before the Fairness Doctrine was rescinded, it ensured for nearly 40 years that broadcasters treated public policy reporting with even-handedness, and offered opposing views on the issue of the day. Before the Telecommunications Act led to unchecked consolidation of the media into a few powerful hands, most media companies had deep roots in local communities. A city newspaper’s goal was rarely just to make a profit; owners with a stake in their communities also wanted the journalism they produced to help make those communities better places to live.
All that seems like a distant memory in today’s environment. But it does offer hope for a better future—if the American people ever decide they want it.
Together, we have already shown that we can address some of the most harmful aspects of “free speech absolutism.” During the 2016 presidential election, political propaganda on Facebook reached 126 million Americans, and automated Tweets reached around 700,000. But thanks to public awareness and a demand for a public response, the 2020 election saw a significant decrease in misinformation on social media, as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) partnered with the major platforms to share threat intelligence and identify and remove false content. Public education also led to fewer Americans clicking on unreliable websites.
That’s a real cause for optimism at a time when too many Americans—including government officials—take an almost fatalistic view of the future of American democracy, with talk of civil war, descent into fascism, and other apocalypic scenarios. Democracy is not dead in America; it’s merely dysfunctional. And its dysfunction can be fixed.
You might say, “No, that’s impossible. There are red states and blue states. Democrats and Republicans hate each other. They disagree on everything.” That’s actually not true at all. Bipartisan organizations have conducted rigorous studies showing that the areas of agreement on the real issues affecting Americans are much larger than you might expect. The Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, for example, identified nearly 150 issues on which majorities of Democrats and Republicans agree.
How do we get the American people talking about, and politicians working on, these issues instead of the handful of wedge issues that only lead to gridlock and mutual animosity? By having both sides agree on a set of ground rules that the media should follow to inform the public in a way that advances—or at least doesn’t undermine—our democracy. Organizations like The Trust Project , a consortium of more than 120 international news outlets that have agree to follow specific standards for fair and accurate reporting, provide a great starting point for establishing these ground rules.
Obviously, the First Amendment is fundamental to our system of government. But there is legislation that Congress can pass that improves the quality of discourse without shutting down those voices on the fringes. For example, the U.S. government could provide tax incentives or grants to media outlets that serve local communities or that make an effort to give a voice to all sides of an issue. This would provide an important counterweight to massive media organizations driven solely by profits.
The government could also create and enforce standards for social media platforms to prevent the spread of false or misleading information and to promote diverse perspectives. This could include requiring platforms to verify the identities of all users and to label or remove content that violates community standards.
The government should also invest in media literacy education programs to teach the public how to distinguish credible news sources from biased or fake news sources. This can include funding public service announcements, partnering with schools to provide media literacy curriculum, and supporting non-profit organizations that promote media literacy.
Finally, the government should collaborate with media outlets, social media platforms, and the public to create a more informed society. This can include hosting public forums and town hall meetings to discuss media partisanship and trustworthiness, and creating opportunities for people from different political beliefs to interact and engage in meaningful dialogue.
Twitter Blue and Elon Musk have received enough press coverage to last a lifetime, but the real problem lies in the dystopian effects of polarization in our world. Both Republicans and Democrats must support government initiatives to reduce the divisions that, left unchecked, threaten to tear our country apart. By working together, we can create a more united society that values diverse perspectives and promotes accurate and unbiased reporting.
About the author
Scott Baradell is CEO and owner of the PR agency Idea Grove and author of the book Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.