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Can Social Media Balance Free Speech With Accountability?

social media crisis thesis

From dawn until dusk, many of us sneak moments here and there checking our socials. Refreshing our feeds on social media platforms may be the first thing we do in the morning and the last thing we do at night. And it all adds up: On average, according to data from Statista , most people in the United States spend over two hours a day scrolling, liking and perusing. Those two (or more) hours open all of us up to a lot of fun content, sure, but they also expose us to out-of-control amounts of viral headlines, “fake news” and other questionable content that can be surprisingly — and dangerously — influential.

The growing prevalence of fake news on various social media platforms is no secret — nearly a quarter of people in the United States rarely trust the news and other information they read on social media, another Statista survey reveals. But what about the other three-quarters who may put themselves and others at risk by trusting everything they read? This proliferation of harmful fake news is raising the question of how social media platforms can tackle the balance between free speech and false information — and whether those platforms are obligated to do so at all.

The nation is more divided than ever, and it’s largely up to the media to find a way to regulate disinformation. But does doing so run contrary to our free speech rights? To better assess this dilemma, it’s essential to look at how fake news really spreads and affects people, along with whether governments and platforms should mitigate the escalation.

How Does Fake News Actually Spread?

“Spreading like wildfire” is a term that perfectly describes the sharing of fake news once it goes viral. But first it has to gain steam among everyday social media users. Typically, fake news stories start out as deliberate misinformation or as accidentally inaccurate information that someone didn’t fact-check before reposting.

social media crisis thesis

The first type often involves information that purposefully promotes a certain point of view or a person and omits any negative facts, similar to propaganda meant to change the way people think about a subject. The second is often a result of misinterpreted satire or even a snippet of a parody or a joke that people unintentionally take seriously. The difference lies in intent, too: The first type is meant to deceive, and the second is meant to entertain. But both can have similar effects.

Normally, the sharing of fake news starts among smaller groups before reaching increasingly wider audiences on social media. The news first spreads among groups of people with similar interests or among close friends. They repost something on their social media feeds when they find it interesting or shocking or when it reinforces their points of view. Then, curious people and friends of friends may start to repost it to their circles, the members of which then share the news further. Soon, the inaccurate piece of information has reached the masses before it’s been properly fact-checked (or questioned at all).

At this stage, the fake news might go viral. According to Oxford University and the Reuters Institute , social media personalities with large followings are often the culprits. They’re considered “super-spreaders” who can very easily share inaccurate information with their impressionable followers (whom they tend to have a lot of). If you have an extremely active network, you might also frequently come across false information shared between your own friends and family.

How Serious Is the Fake News Problem on Social Media?

To evaluate how powerful fake news is, it helps to look at some examples of incidents when viral news turned out to be complete misinformation. The majority of many of these recent “facts” tend to focus on the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election; however, fake news can encompass just about any topic. Below are two examples of viral news that turned out to be factually false.

social media crisis thesis

The Original Claim: An NPR study revealed that 25 million votes cast for Hillary Clinton in 2016 were fake.

The Breakdown: These claims originally came from a website called YourNewsWire, which stated that the report was made by the Pew Research Center — an organization that’s generally regarded as one of the most credible, unbiased polling centers in the United States — with statements cited from an InfoWars article. The source of this information was twisted to fit a narrative trying to invalidate Clinton’s popular-vote victory. It turned out that the original report the fake news was based on was actually made in 2012 and stated that 24 million voter registrations were no longer valid due to deaths or were inaccurate due to voters moving to other states, not that they had voted fraudulently. It had nothing to do with the results of the 2016 election.

The Original Claim: Page 132 of a mysterious Pfizer “vaccine report” stated the vaccine could cause birth defects via genetic manipulation.

The Breakdown: A viral photo shared on social media stated that page 132 of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine safety instructions revealed that the vaccine may lead to birth defects. It was accompanied by a link that took users to the alleged instructions. However, this link only led to documentation from a publicly available Pfizer clinical trial rather than the official government document. Furthermore, page 132 outlined abbreviations, not fertility impact information. Another page contained a brief mention that trial patients should avoid getting pregnant for 28 days after receiving the last dose of the vaccine — common pharmaceutical advice for all vaccines in relation to pregnancies.

There are costs to this type of fake news; when people believe it and spread it, it can put others in danger. For example, in the case of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation — and fake news about the virus itself — consequences can be dire. BBC reports that, in addition to an unchecked increase in the spread of the novel coronavirus because fake news led people to believe the virus was a hoax, people put their own and others’ lives at risk in various ways as a result of “facts” they learned about COVID-19 on social media. Arson, assaults, attacks and other notable acts of violence occurred, all of which pose “potential health threat[s]” both to believers of the fake news and those who speak out against those who believe it.

What Role Does Freedom of Speech Play?

Fake news clearly has the potential to cause harm. But does that mean the social media platforms where it spreads are obligated to take steps to reduce users’ exposure to potentially harmful information? Many people cite the First Amendment in justifying the argument that social media sites shouldn’t be held accountable for the damaging fake news that proliferates on them.

social media crisis thesis

The First Amendment is a section of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights that protects, among other things, freedom of speech — our right to express ourselves, our ideas and our opinions without being punished for doing so. This makes content regulation a much harder task online. Unless misinformation presents serious harm, the content of fake news is generally protected by the First Amendment. And some people argue it should remain protected because censorship would be a form of oppression and a violation of human rights.

In contrast, those who argue freedom of expression doesn’t fully apply to fake news note that the First Amendment doesn’t necessarily protect an individual’s right to lie or to “intentionally mislead an audience and sway public opinion for political gain,” according to the Center on Human Rights Education . In addition, according to Dr. John L. Vile, the dean of political science at Middle Tennessee State University, “the First Amendment is designed to further the pursuit of truth, [but] it may not protect individuals who…display actual malice by knowingly publishing false information or publishing information ‘with reckless disregard for the truth.'”

While it’s valid to point out the dangers of government censorship, it’s equally important to acknowledge the dangers of spreading false information and to demand change.

What Can Be Done to Regulate Fake News?

It’s clear that fake news can spread quickly — so quickly that it may appear nearly impossible to contain. So what can be done to balance free speech with accountability and potentially stem the flow of all the fakeness? It’s relatively easy, at least on a personal level, to create new consumption habits by making a concerted effort to seek out fact-checking websites — two reliable choices are Snopes and FactCheck.org — and verify a claim’s veracity. But that alone doesn’t stop fake news from spreading.

social media crisis thesis

While social media platforms may not be legally obligated to protect users from fake news, they may be morally compelled to do so. If they can recognize that their platforms, by design, are contributing to the dissemination of harmful media, they should take it upon themselves to place limits on that information. It may not be possible for governments to step in and levy restrictions without compromising or violating freedom of speech — and it may not be their place to do so. “In that case,” states the Center on Human Rights Education , “the onus to address this issue should not rest solely on the government. Corporations such as Facebook and Google should ensure that the entities responsible for creating inaccurate content are regulated appropriately.”

Fortunately, it appears that some sites are working towards this. NBC News reported that, during the second quarter of 2020, Facebook removed 22.5 million posts containing hate speech and 7 million posts “sharing false information about the novel coronavirus, including content that promoted fake preventative measures and exaggerated cures.” This is a step in the right direction, to be sure, but Facebook, other platforms and even media outlets will need to increase these efforts if real change is to be achieved.


social media crisis thesis

Social Media and Crisis Communication: Theories and Best Practices

Downloadable content.

social media crisis thesis

  • Ford, Tegan Nicole

Communication experts have argued that crises are no longer a matter of “if” but “when” in corporate life. Corporations must be ready to respond to a crisis with the greatest proficiency, for it can easily damage an organization’s image, identity, and reputation. It is for this reason that the field of crisis communications has developed theories and strategies to guide organizations through periods of crisis. However, most of these theories are based on traditional models of communications that emphasize a one-way flow of information from a single communicator to a mass audience. Social media has destabilized established frameworks for crisis communication. This thesis explores how experts in crisis communication conceptualize the disruptive effects of social media on crisis communication. The study presents findings that will contribute to both scholarship and professional practice.

  • Carleton University
  • Master's
  • Master of Arts (M.A.)
  • Communication
  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.22215/etd/2013-09942

Copyright © 2013 the author(s). Theses may be used for non-commercial research, educational, or related academic purposes only. Such uses include personal study, research, scholarship, and teaching. Theses may only be shared by linking to Carleton University Institutional Repository and no part may be used without proper attribution to the author. No part may be used for commercial purposes directly or indirectly via a for-profit platform; no adaptation or derivative works are permitted without consent from the copyright owner.

  • Theses and Dissertations

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Purpose - Purpose. The aim of this paper is to develop and test a theoretical framework, grounded in managerial and organizational theories of dialogue, through which organizations can take decisions in relation to the most appropriate crisis response strategies for handling social media stakeholders . Design/methodology/approach - Design/Methodology/Approach. The theoretical framework is developed through a conceptual analysis of literature on dialogue, social media and crisis communication. The theoretical framework is then tested in eight different international organizations experiencing a crisis. For each case, different web contents, such as organizations’ status updates/posts, links, videos published in Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were analyzed using a rhetorical research approach. Findings - Findings. The analyzed organizations apply different online dialogue strategies according to crisis types and in combination with specific crisis response strategies. Most of the organizations investigated carry on those dialogue strategies suitable to develop consensus (concertative), guide conversations on specific topics or issues (framing), find solutions to the crisis collectively (transformative). Concertative strategies were often associated with informative crisis response strategies, framing strategies with denial and justification crisis response strategies and transformative strategies with corrective actions. Research limitations/implications - Research implications. By using a dialogic perspective in setting up online conversations with their external stakeholders, the paper proposes a theoretical model to explain companies’ decisions in carrying on online dialogues during critical situations and thus contribute to the body of knowledge on online crisis communications. Practical implications - Practical implications. The proposed model can support crisis communicators to manage dialogue’s aims and dimensions differently by taking into account both contextual and situational conditions. Originality/value - Originality/Value. By integrating management studies on dialogue into crisis communication and social media literature, the authors intend to offer an alternative thinking of organizations’ decision-making in relation to crisis response strategies and social media stakeholders.

Organizations' Conversations in Social Media: Applying Dialogue Strategies in Times of Crises.

2017, Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Entrepreneurship and Business Management (ICEBM 2017)

In Vietnam, social media has become one of the most popular communication platforms. With the growing importance of social media for the Vietnamese people, in the past five years, Vietnam has seen a number of organizational or brand crises that started on social media. A single post online could be shared virally and attract enough attention to become a full crisis. However, while social media has been widely used in marketing and promotional activities, Vietnamese organizations have often ignored or underutilized these channels in their crisis communication efforts. Organizations focus their crisis communication through traditional media outlets and paid little to no attention to social media outlets, even if the crisis had started on social media channels. Little research has dedicated to exploring this topic, on the use of social media in PR or in crisis communication in a Vietnamese setting. To address this gap, this research aims to identify what facilitates and hinders the use of social media in crisis communication in Vietnamese organizations.

What facilitates and hinders the use of social media in crisis communication in Vietnamese organizations

ahmed kaabi

مجلة البحوث الإعلامیة

The Effectiveness of Utilizing Social Media as a Public Relations Platform during an Organizational Crisis within the Cruise Ship Industry

KKprop Eric

The role of the social media in crisis communication has increased in the last couple of years and some organizations have positively mainstreamed social media in crisis communication, but there are some organizations especially in the public sector that are still reluctant to incorporate social media in communication during disasters and instead view social media as a threat to disaster management. Therefore the objective of the study was to examine the role of the social media in crisis communication in public organizations in Kenya with specific reference to Kenya Pipeline Corporation and Mukuru- Sinai Fire Disaster. The specific objectives of the study included the effect of influence of rapid information sharing, reinforcing disaster response strategy and provision of platform for participation and contribution on crisis communication in public organizations in Kenya. The research study used descriptive research design in collecting the data from respondents. The target population was drawn was drawn from Kenya Pipeline Corporation and composed of management, communication staff and crisis management committee all totaling to sixty nine (69) respondents. The research study undertook survey of the total population as a sample. The primary data for the study was collected using the questionnaires and analyzed using descriptive and regression statistics with the aid of Statistical Package for Social Sciences. The study established that there is a significant relationship between rapid information sharing, reinforcing disaster response strategy and provision of platform for participation and contribution on crisis communication in public organizations

Role of Social Media in Crisis Communication in Public Organizations in Kenya: A Case of Kenya Pipeline Corporation and Mukuru-Sinai Fire Disaster

2017, International Journal of Strategic Communication

The prescriptive approach to crisis communication strategy (CCS) selection has long been criticized for lack of flexibility and adaptability. To address this issue, this study proposes an emergent approach to strategy formulation by focusing on contextual impacts on social media crises and their implications for CCS. An online discussion on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform, about a high-profile homicide in aMcDonald’s restaurant, is taken as the case. Based on a multidisciplinary theoretical framework that consists of the theory of rhetorical arena and framing theory, an inductive framing analysis of 100 top forwarded posts indicates a complex negotiation process among multiple crisis communicators through various crisis frames. The results suggest that selection of CCS should be from contextually based behavior through investigating interaction amongmultiple crisis communicators and examining the contexts inwhich crises are situated. This study also contributes to advancing the CCS selectionmodel of Situational Crisis Communication Theory by integrating contextual factors.

The Impacts of Contextual Factors on Social Media Crises: Implications for Crisis Communication Strategy Selection


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    BACHELOR'S THESIS. Author: Joonas Salminen. Title of thesis: The Role of Social Media in Corporate Crisis Communication. Date: 10 April 2017. Degree: Bachelor


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    This thesis is submitted to Bond University in fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of. Doctor of Philosophy. This thesis represents my own original

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    Scott Hoggard, T.A. Emergency Managers' Perspectives on Social Media Use for Situational Awareness during Disasters. Ph.D. Thesis, Walden University


    social media platforms to respond to different crises. This thesis first reviews theories of crisis stage, crisis situation, crisis response


    I, Trishana Ramluckan, declare that: i) The research reported in this dissertation/thesis, except where otherwise indicated, is my original research. (ii)


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