Who's Done More Damage to America, Fox News or Twitter? | Opinion

In a May 22 interview with CNN Business, Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter, noted that despite President Trump's habitual use of Twitter to spread lies and disinformation, the social media platform was not nearly as dangerous as Fox News. As Williams explained, "The vast majority of the electorate is not on Twitter reading Trump's tweets and being convinced by that. What they're convinced much more by is ... Fox News, which is much, much more powerful and much more destructive than Twitter."

Let me begin by saying that I am sympathetic to Williams' claim about the destructive character of Fox News. As I have noted elsewhere, it "has largely become a network of intolerance and hate," which effectively functions as "state sponsored television for the Trump administration." Fox News manages to find new and creative ways to demean and debase itself on an almost daily basis, from accusing Robert Mueller of working for the Democrats (Jeanine Pirro) to declaring Mexico a hostile foreign power (Tucker Carlson) to Laura Inghram promoting a white supremacist on the air. Meanwhile, Sean Hannity remains the network's most unhinged and dangerous influence.

At this point, it is laughable to even refer to Fox News as a news outlet. Despite its name and branding, the vast majority of programming on the network is not news at all. It is political opinion, commentary, and entertainment programming that reflects a right-wing ideology. Unfortunately, most viewers do not make a distinction between this sort of programming and the few shows still dedicated to hard, if conservative-slanted, news. Overall, Fox News has become little more than a purveyor of propaganda and disinformation.

This social threat was on full display following a recent town hall meeting hosted by Justin Amash, the only Republican member of Congress to call for impeachment of the president, when Fox News viewer Cathy Garnaat noted: "I was surprised to hear there was anything negative in the Mueller report at all about President Trump. I hadn't heard that before. I've mainly listened to conservative news and I hadn't heard anything negative about that report and President Trump has been exonerated."

Despite the serious dangers posed by Fox News, as someone who has spent more than 20 years studying the media and its social, cultural, and political influence, I believe Williams' comments deserve closer scrutiny. In particular, I wish to highlight two points.

First, Twitter and Fox News are not like entities and, therefore, it is not reasonable to compare them in the manner that Williams has done. Twitter is a social media platform that makes no claim to be a news organization. Fox News is a 24-cable news network, which as its name suggests, explicitly claims to be in the business of news (even if it is really in the business of entertainment.) That Fox News is a destructive news outlet does not excuse Twitter from being a responsible social media platform.

Second, Twitter falls well far short of its responsibilities as a social media outlet. Unlike news organizations, whose purpose is to keep the public informed on matters of social importance, Twitter is oriented toward "free expression" and "civic engagement." So, based on its stated values, Twitter ought to be judged by the degree to which it fosters responsible free expression rooted in civic engagement. Based on that standard, Twitter fails.

Far from promoting the civic life of our communities or fostering informed and responsible expression, Twitter tends to privilege simple, impulsive, and uncivil communication. These structural biases make Twitter ill-suited to play a positive role in our national politics and, in fact, the platform has fueled the deep political divisions in this country and contributed to the spread of messages of hate.

But even more concerning is Twitter's role in the 2016 presidential election. Russia's sophisticated and systematic cyberterrorist attacks on the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which successfully tipped the election in Trump's favor, were carried out almost entirely on social media platforms. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook, not Fox News, were responsible for the dangerous spread of fake news (the real kind, not the made-up kind that the president invented to undermine legitimate journalism.)

So, no matter how destructive Fox News may be as a news outlet (and it most certainly is), Twitter has been destructive in its own way as a social media platform.

Brian L. Ott, a professor of communication studies and director of the TTU Press at Texas Tech University, is co-author, with Greg Dickinson, of The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​