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This Critical Debate is part of a Debate Comparison:

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Duration
30-60 minutes
Topic(s)
  • Constitution
  • Journalism
  • Media Ethics
Grade(s)
  • 7-12
  • College/University

THE CASE

You’re an avid social media user with a large number of followers. A follower you don’t know personally sends you a story they want you to share. The story claims that a well-known deadly disease was actually created by the U.S. government to be used as a weapon. The follower believes more people should know “the truth” and wants you to help them spread the word about this shocking revelation.

The story your follower sent you does not contain any hard proof of its claims. There are no first-person interviews or documents cited to support this origin of the disease. However, it does include references to a number of newspaper articles from the 1980s, when this disease was relatively new, that suggest the U.S. government was involved. You don’t immediately recognize any of the newspaper names. They seem to be real, but you’d have to dig deeper to learn what they really say.

You know the First Amendment protects your right to share the story, even if it’s false. But you’re not sure if sharing it is the right thing to do. On the one hand, you believe your followers have the right to know about this serious claim and evaluate the evidence for themselves. On the other hand, if it’s not true, sharing it might lead to confusion about an important public health issue.

Should you share this story?

  1. Yes. It’s interesting, and it’s up to your followers to decide whether they think it’s true.

    You’re only relaying a story that someone else created, and such a shocking claim will probably attract a lot of likes and shares from your followers and others.

  2. No. Ignore it and avoid spreading questionable information.

    There are no solid facts to back up these claims beyond a few old news stories. Just because the First Amendment would protect sharing it, that doesn’t mean you should.

  • Should printing rumors without proof be protected by the First Amendment? Where should the line be drawn?
  • How does the fact that this story was reported by some newspapers 30 years ago affect the way you view this tip? Do you think this is sufficient proof that it is true? Why or why not?
  • Does it make a difference that the story was written when the disease was just emerging?
  • What consequences could occur if you share the story and it is false?
  • What proof would you want to have before publicizing this type of claim? Why?
  • If there’s a chance this story could be true, should you share it to warn people before you’ve gathered additional proof? Why or why not?
  • If these claims are not true, why are they in this story? What would motivate someone to make up something like this?

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