Todd often worried about his younger sister, Tabatha. They, and everyone else in the world, were living through the worst pandemic in modern history, but Todd was convinced Tabatha had been infected by an even more insidious pathogen than the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the novel coronavirus that attacked the circulatory system and various internal organs, primarily the lungs. Todd was convinced his sister was the victim of an agent that attacked only her brain, robbing her of the ability to think coherently.
Todd, a television journalist, and Tabatha, who had quit pursuing an acting career to join a religious cult, had communicated infrequently in recent years. But when they did get together on one of their trips back to their hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, Todd discovered that his sister had come to believe in the multi-level conspiracy theories that, collectively, had become known as Q-Anon. Q is a mysterious person or group, supposedly with access to classified information that it reveals through coded messages to its followers, the Q-Anon. Q’s messages sent out over online bulletin boards and amplified over social media, had convinced Tabatha that COVID-19 was a political ploy to damage President Donald Trump’s chances for re-election; that wearing a mask did nothing to reduce it’s spread, since it was no more deadly than a common virus; and that Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, was behind the push to create a vaccine that was, in reality, a cover for implanting microchips in millions of people so that their movements could be monitored.
Todd thought it was another of Q-Anon’s baseless theories that had sucked his sister down a rabbit hole, specifically, the one that claimed that Hollywood celebrities and leading Democrats were running a child sex trafficking operation, and that then-President Donald Trump, was working to shut down the operation. Tabatha had become obsessed with this hoax and couldn’t stop talking about the “Save the Children” rallies.
In a disturbingly short amount of time, Todd saw his sister slip out of his reach. She ceased to even listen to his objections or counterevidence and retreated into the comfort of her conspiracy bubble. Todd believed that YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook had been the principal media through which the conspiracy contagion had engulfed his sister. She had never, she claimed, had enough money to afford a cable TV subscription, so she had never been exposed to round-the-clock cable news. She mostly read the local newspaper and various religious-based books vetted by her church. However, after she got her first smartphone with access to the Internet and social media, she couldn’t stop sharing with Todd all the memes and viral videos she came across.
Watching this transformation of his sister, Todd grew ever more convinced that unless the social media companies monitored and even policed their users’ content, the whole population could, like Tabatha, become fertile ground for movements like Q-Anon, which the FBI had described as a potential terrorist threat. Unfortunately, in Todd’s view, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects Internet platforms like bulletin boards and social media websites from liability for what users post on those sites. Todd firmly believed that it was time to make those who owned and controlled social media platforms take responsibility for the content they hosted or relinquish the immense profitsthey were making off their viewers. He believed they should be held just as accountable as traditional media, such as newspapers, television and radio. Todd, as a professional journalist, believed with all his heart in freedom of speech—but that every freedom should bring responsibility with it.
Todd thought this was more than a First Amendment issue. He saw the Internet as a megaphone in a very crowded theater where irresponsible people were screaming “Fire.” As a result, an increasing number of people like his sister were becoming unmoored from reality.
From the 2021 National Ethics Bowl. Prepared by
Robert Boyd Skipper: Chair, Case Preparation Committee
Robert A. Currie