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Misinformation and Disinformation: Where To Draw the Line?

Americans have become quite familiar with the term “fake news,” which was used heavily during the 2016 election cycle and continued to be used thereafter. The origin of the term is debated, but its impact is not. This sort of misinformation has been most notable and effectual online, as many social media sites were unprepared to take measures against it due to protections of speech and lack of oversight. 

The most damaging effects of misinformation came during the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 election campaigns. Many sources of information were competing in the marketplace of ideas for control of the narrative. The misinformation present during both the COVID-19 pandemic and the most recent presidential elections has changed the way Americans and American institutions perceive our right to free speech, especially online. The perception of what can and cannot be regulated online is a source of intense debate and conversation.

“Fake news” is a colloquialism used to describe misinformation of any kind present on social media and in the general news media. Disinformation is an even more sinister form of information used to purposefully mislead and manipulate people for personal gain, monetary or otherwise. Misinformation and disinformation have fragmented the public and ultimately resulted in social divisions over elections, public health, policy issues and other important social and political aspects of American life.

Probably the biggest, recent issue that can be attributed to online disinformation and misinformation is American vaccine hesitancy. This cannot be attributed solely to misinformation from one source, although experts agree that online misinformation, vis-à-vis social media and alternative news sources, has played a part in deterring Americans from the vaccine. 

Vaccine hesitancy caused issues in combating the spread of COVID-19, which resulted in the preventable deaths of many older and unvaccinated Americans. Some experts have called upon social media sites to begin regulating what is said regarding COVID-19 and vaccinations even more heavily than has been done in the past. This call has prompted questions as to how much of what people say can be protected and how much of it can be regulated on the grounds of being misleading. 

It is important that the vaccine conversation is heavily monitored by all outlets as it is part of a public health measure that has benefits that outweigh the cost of regulating speech online. American policymakers and media distributors must acknowledge the harmful nature of this conversation and promote education and awareness of the importance of vaccines.

Those who are being regulated are not always average Americans. Former President Donald Trump has been banned from Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. The pushback against Trump’s social media presence came after an attempt at an insurrection aimed at stopping President Joe Biden’s inauguration at the U.S. Capitol, which some argue was directly prompted by Trump in his public statements. Trump and his supporters claim that his presence on social media is protected by his right to free speech. There's also pushback against the idea that Trump intentionally incited a riot. But whatever his intention, the effects of his statements are obvious. Those who oppose Trump argue that the actions carried out by those at the Capitol on Jan 6, 2021, place his words and posts in a more dangerous category, hence qualifying him for a social media ban.

It is important to note that the arguments from both Trump’s supporters and opponents carry implications based on the way each situation can be handled. On one hand, if Trump’s social media posts were to go unchecked, it would be hard to defend any regulation of speech because the inflammatory posts could continue to divide Americans, as controversial social media posts tend to reach a wider audience than uncontroversial ones. The sort of rhetoric employed by Trump falls under the category of disinformation.

On the other hand, those who claim that regulation is going too far cite the free speech protection of the First Amendment to the Constitution. This argument is not always sound, as free speech protections have always had limits, and posts that incite violence and hate on social media should not be protected by it. Free speech protections must be reformatted for our changing digital scape, just as the concept has evolved throughout the history of the United States, and should not extend to disinformation and misinformation.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Conger, Krista. “How misinformation, medical mistrust fuel vaccine hesitancy | News Center | Stanford Medicine.” Stanford Medicine, 2 Sept. 2021,

Denham, Hannah. “Trump and his allies are banned from these platforms - The Washington Post.” Washington Post, 13 Jan. 2021,

Gamillo, Elizabeth. “Unvaccinated Individuals Are 11 Times More Likely to Die From Covid-19.” Smithsonian Magazine, 20 Sept. 2021,

Mims, Christopher. “Why Social Media Is So Good at Polarizing Us.” Wall Street Journal, 19 Oct. 2020,

Romano, Aja. “Why Trump’s Twitter ban isn’t a violation of free speech: Deplatforming, 

Simpson, Erin, and Adam Conner. “Fighting Coronavirus Misinformation and Disinformation.” Center for American Progress, 18 Aug. 2020,

Siripurapu, Anshu, and Will Merrow. “Social Media and Online Speech: How Should Countries Regulate Tech Giants?” Council on Foreign Relations, 9 Feb. 2021, 


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