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Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age

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Melissa Yeager

Communication has gone global. The digital age has empowered us to connect across the world, but with disinformation on the rise, governments are starting to regulate digital platforms that don’t exist within the borders of one country. Such global issues require global solutions.

Melissa Yeager, SOC/MA '17, works across borders to ensure that free speech is protected online. As a 2018 Robert Bosch fellow, the former global media graduate student researched the intersection of disinformation and technology–and how it impacts press freedom.

Working with Reporters Ohne Grenzen (Reporters Without Borders, ROG) in Berlin, Germany, Yeager helped draft the organization’s position on social media regulation, which could change social networking, and digital free speech, as we know it.


“As I’ve conducted my research over the past year, I’ve realized new communications technology has, throughout history, been disruptive in both good and bad ways,” Yeager explains. “There’s always a period where we have some ‘communications pollution’ as people get used to the advantages and limits of said communications.”

Her role at ROG was to draft policy recommendations to clean up that pollution, specifically related to the 2017 hate speech on social media law (NetzDG), which forces companies to take down posts with hate speech or face fines. The impact of that law is just making itself known and Yeager, in partnership with ROG, worked to to ensure that the removal of disinformation didn’t trample on press freedom.

As countries try to figure out how to regulate digital communication platforms and avoid potentially dangerous pitfalls that come from us being so connected, Yeager says, they must also ensure that they’re not inadvertently censoring free speech.

“A democracy is harmed when it is influenced by widespread misperceptions and policy decisions are based on bad information,” Yeager says.

Yeager’s passion for this subject comes from her belief that free press is a cornerstone of democracy and that democracy depends on a well-informed public. That’s why her research focused on issues that might threaten freedom of information.


Yeager credits American University’s global media master’s program (formerly known as International Media) for helping her enter the Robert Bosch Fellowship Program, a transatlantic initiative that offers a select cohort of Americans the opportunity to complete a comprehensive intercultural professional program in Germany. The classes she took at AU helped prepare her for the program and made her a competitive candidate.

“I know many of the projects I completed in Ambassador [Anthony] Quainton’s class prepared me for the interview process,” Yeager says. “Professor [John Robert] Kelly’s Public Diplomacy class also helped me realize the importance of citizen diplomats…and how I might be perceived as such during my time here in Germany.”

As part of the 11-month program, Yeager spent nine weeks learning German, worked at German institutions like the nonprofit newsroom CORRECT!V, and pursued research on how disinformation and technology impact press freedom. Her transatlantic research was an extension of her 2017 capstone project.


After spending 15 years as a television reporter, Yeager desired a career change. While she wanted to continue writing, she also wanted to focus on international affairs. The global media master’s program was exactly what she was looking for.

“AU’s program combined my love of journalism with opportunities to learn more about international relations,” Yeager says.

Yeager also liked that this program provided access and opportunities in the nation’s capital. Originally from the Midwest, Yeager wasn’t aware of the many opportunities for fellowships and funding to go abroad until she moved to DC.

“American University’s location in DC gave me access to influential people in the field of international relations. It also gave me access to international experiences, like a fellowship to tour the European Parliament and learn more about the European Union.”

Yeager credits the unique master’s program for the opportunities it provides its students.

“If you’re looking for a program that combines the theory of international policy with the practical experience of journalism, American University is a great place to be.”

Learn more about our graduate program in Global Media, and request information.