Richard Hasen recently had a column–pardon me, a “guest essay”–in the New York Times. Hasen is a pre-eminent scholar of elections and electoral systems; whose most recent book is “Cheap Speech: How Disinformation Poisons Our Politics — and How to Cure It.”
In the “guest essay,” Hasen joins the scholars and pundits concerned about the negative consequences of so-called “fake news.”
The same information revolution that brought us Netflix, podcasts and the knowledge of the world in our smartphone-gripping hands has also undermined American democracy. There can be no doubt that virally spread political disinformation and delusional invective about stolen, rigged elections are threatening the foundation of our Republic. It’s going to take both legal and political change to bolster that foundation, and it might not be enough.
Hasen uses the term “cheap speech” in two ways. It’s an acknowledgement that the Internet has slashed the cost of promulgating all communications–credible and not. But it is also recognition that the information environment has become increasingly “cheap” in the sense of “favoring speech of little value over speech that is more valuable to voters.”
It is expensive to produce quality journalism but cheap to produce polarizing political “takes” and easily shareable disinformation. The economic model for local newspapers and news gathering has collapsed over the past two decades; from 2000 to 2018, journalists lost jobs faster than coal miners.
Hasen catalogues the various ways in which that collapse has undermined confidence in American institutions, especially government, and he points out that much “fake news” is not mere misinformation. but” deliberately spread disinformation, which can be both politically and financially profitable.”
Reading the essay, I thought back to Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message.” Hasen says that even if politics in the 1950s had been as polarized as they are today, it is highly unlikely that those division would have triggered the insurrection of Jan. 6th, and equally unlikely that millions of Republicans would believe phony claims about a “stolen” 2020 election. Social media has had a profoundly detrimental effect on democracy.
A democracy cannot function without “losers’ consent,” the idea that those on the wrong side of an election face disappointment but agree that there was a fair vote count. Those who believe the last election was stolen will have fewer compunctions about attempting to steal the next one. They are more likely to threaten election officials, triggering an exodus of competent election officials. They are more likely to see the current government as illegitimate and to refuse to follow government guidance on public health, the environment and other issues crucial to health and safety. They are comparatively likely to see violence as a means of resolving political grievances.
Hasen buttresses his argument with several examples of the ways cheap speech –and weakened political parties–damage democracy. His litany leaves us with a very obvious question: what can we do? Assuming the accuracy of his diagnosis, what is the prescribed treatment? Hasen gives us a list of his preferred fixes: updating campaign finance laws so that they apply to what is now mostly unregulated political advertising disseminated over the internet; mandating the labeling of deep fakes as “altered;” and tightening the ban on foreign campaign expenditures, among others.
Congress should also make it a crime to lie about when, where and how people vote. A Trump supporter has been charged with targeting voters in 2016 with false messages suggesting that they could vote by text or social media post, but it is not clear if existing law makes such conduct illegal. We also need new laws aimed at limiting microtargeting, the use by campaigns or interest groups of intrusive data collected by social media companies to send political ads, including some misleading ones, sometimes to vulnerable populations.
He also acknowledges that such measures would be a hard sell to today’s Supreme Court, noting that much of the court’s jurisprudence depends upon faith in an arguably outmoded “marketplace of ideas” metaphor, which assumes that the truth will emerge through counter-speech.
If that was ever true in the past, it is not true in the cheap speech era. Today, the clearest danger to American democracy is not government censorship but the loss of voter confidence and competence that arises from the sea of disinformation and vitriol.
He argues that we need to find a way to subsidize real journalism, especially local journalism, and that journalism bodies should use accreditation methods to signal which content is reliable and which is counterfeit. “Over time and with a lot of effort, we can reestablish greater faith in real journalism, at least for a significant part of the population.”
I would add a requirement that schools teach media literacy.
That said, how much of this is do-able is an open question.
34 thoughts on “Cheap Speech”
Well sure. I’m also sure Todd will have many things to say about this column and blog too.
BUT, the bottom line is, ultimately, the mind of the absorber of fake news. I’ve written about this ex-FBI agent who keeps surfing the disinformation world and publishing to all his “friends” that which embraces his singular vitriol. He keeps claiming to be a lawman of some repute, yet favors the lies and disinformation that suit his political environment. It’s really pathetic.
I’ve sparred with this guy for several years and have been amazed at how concrete his “thinking” is and how often he turns himself into a pretzel justifying the lies and fake news. I stopped doing that for the sake of my own health. This guy is irredeemable.
That said, it is clear that disinformation works because those with the pathological information biases like my FBI “pal” have nowhere else to go. It’s part psychological, as I speculate madly, but it is also social. Disinformation believers have been around forever. History proves it. It’s just a matter of how it’s delivered. Today, it’s by electronic media that goes around the world in seconds. But 5,000 years ago it was spread by clay tablets and papyrus scrolls. Same drill. Different medium. Confirmation bias is part of our nature having evolved listening to alpha males and shamans in our caves, lo those many millennia ago.
Hasen doesn’t have access to a journalism department?
The USA ranks 45th for press freedom. Ask the journalism department why and what they can do to increase that low ranking globally.
Here’s a clue: they won’t answer it. Or at least, they won’t answer it honestly if they enjoy their jobs. I know the ones at Ball State University won’t answer it.
They produce digital storytellers and public relations specialists – not journalists. The journalists they do produce are told that this newspaper or media entity is in the business of making money – not changing the world.
If you want to know what happens to truth-telling journalists, read Nils Melzer’s book about the Julian Assange case. He’s the United Nations Special Rappatouer on Torture.
Also, Stefania Maurizi has written a book about the case in Italian. Coming soon is the English version.
Or, you could use your own critical thinking skills and ask yourself why a white teen in Ukraine is called a “freedom-fighter” when standing in front of a Russian tank, but a brown teen in Palestine standing in front of an Israeli tank is called a “terrorist.”
The Western Media is ALL state propaganda just like Russian and Chinese media are state propaganda. Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Abby Martin, James Risen, Jonathon Cook, Glenn Greenwald, etc., etc. have all pulled back the curtain to show us that the US Media is a fraud – propaganda.
If Hasen can’t see it, or won’t see it, he is also a fraud. Simple logic.
Add the name of Bulgarian journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva to the list of courageous investigators who have thrown back the curtain.
As a former local newspaper writer, allow me to assure you that local newspapers are controlled by the business advertisers who are overwhelmingly right-wing. There will be no honest reporting there.
Teaching media literacy beginning in 7th grade should be required. But again, since the right-wing has installed a permanent oligarchy (super-majority) in Indiana, there will be no teaching people how to see through their propaganda.
Hasen has legitimate concerns, but I would turn his remedies around. I believe the more we give government the power to decide what is real information and what is fake information the more government censorship becomes the clearest danger to American democracy. Imagine the atmosphere that could have been created by government if Biden had lost.
In my media years, many losing candidates would complain essentially that journalists did not do the candidates’ job in carrying their messages. I think Democrats have relied on a belief that the news should be on their side. With “cheap speech,” we cry foul when when the opposition takes advantage of new tools. Then we look to government – the home of unintended consequences – for a solution.
Vern, Gooooood Morning!!!
Man Vern, you nailed it! Qanon
Named after the all-powerful Q, all knowing, and all seeing. He was a villain from Star Trek, lol!
The beginnings of this disinformation is concocted by those who love to cause anarchy! They love to see turmoil and disruption. They love to spin out and out lies knowing that there are plenty out there who will pick up that flag and wave it around! The disgruntled minions who wish to make everyone else miserable, just as they themselves are miserable!
So many insecure muckitty mucks, that love company, all trying to be self-important. In their effort, they pick up many of the aggrieved weak-minded lemmings that you see embracing obvious ignorance so they can have a sense of belonging to some sort of world-changing movement.
Truth Doesn’t matter, it doesn’t even enter the equation. Self delusion and willful ignorance will always lead to self radicalization and self-idolization!
Todd really has a good point, the echo Chambers blind everyone to other important aspects of the day happening around the world. They pick one story, it’s 24/7 365. You would think there is nothing else going on in the world beyond Vladimir Putin’s war. 8 00 homicides last year in chicago, and thousands more wounded and debilitated. Almost all of it largely ignored by national media. Because there’s more interesting Boogeymen to cover. Sensationalism sells, and it draws the hypnotized weak-minded moths right into the fire!
Sean Hannity was an excellent example of this, but Tucker Carlson has absolutely positively picked up the mantle. They knowingly lie, they knowingly and willfully plant the seed of mistrust and doubt, they see their following grow, and they become more willfully unhinged to continue that growth. I’m really not sure about the list Todd had in his comment about the so-called whistleblowing individuals who drew attention to themselves. Kind of like a whole flock of lone rangers, lol! That being said, there really is no moral High ground when it comes to politics. And, on a rapidly increasing trajectory, journalism also!
Just like those that are addicted to gambling, they go into a casino with no windows or no clocks. All they see are the gambling machines that they are addicted to! It’s exactly the same with the 24-hour media cycle. And, I refuse to sit and watch all of that junk. I definitely don’t read all of that junk. I prefer to do my own research!
People are lazy when it comes to their passion, they would rather be told what to believe rather than actually attempting to find out the reality of a situation. When a babies see something shiny, they’re naturally drawn to it! And the baby will be mesmerized with this shiny object all day long. No different than the psychologically and intellectually infantile drawn to the shiny object that claims to know all about their woes and why they have those woes. And they also desire to be the next shiny object for their own flock of psychologically and intellectually infantile.
You are absolutely correct about this happening throughout history! It really is cyclical and a sign of the decaying society that brings down civilizations. Can it be changed? I doubt it, we are just following the same trajectory many other civilizations have. Mankind refuses to learn from history. Maybe, a couple thousand years from now, someone will run across these blog posts and say, WOW, why couldn’t they see what was happening, lol! And that Civilization will run the same course!
How does the song go? “It’s too late baby now it’s too late, though we really did try to change it, something inside has died.”
The horse left and the barn door is still open. The cat’s out of the bag, the genie is out of the bottle, there’s no redo’s of this magnitude. Hellacious change is coming, and then everyone will really long for those good old days they see in the rearview mirror either real or imagined! Hindsight is 20/20 but recollection is usually seen through a kaleidoscope! At least there’s a choice of shiny objects to choose.
The first thing I would ask is stop calling it “disinformation”! It’s a lie! Call it a lie! The second thing I would ask is that the sources of those lies should be required to label the lies as lies.
John! You hit it all very well. Rebecca Costa’s book, “The Watchman’s Rattle” should be required reading for everyone, especially those in media. The corporate peddlers of lies would have to find a mirror good enough to hide their facial hair, pointy teeth and yellow eyes. What would our news media look like if it weren’t being operated by the werewolves of greed?
Before “media literacy” there is a pre-requisite, critical thinking – now banished from our public schools. And so my (sorry, folks) umpteenth recommendation for “Teaching As a Subversive Activity” – Postman and Weingartner. Postman also wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death” which also applies.
There was a great scene in the tv show, The West Wing, where a reporter talking privately to a staffer said, “Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant.” To which the West Wing staffer replied, “Maybe for germs, not for the plague.” It certainly seems that the ‘election was stolen’ lie is a plague for which we have no cure — and sunlight is not helping in any way. That said, I am just not sure that the answer lies within some nostalgia for the glory days of the newspaper. Teaching media literacy may be an interesting approach but that is one that will take a generation to realize some results – and I can see it stopped in its infancy as accusations of ‘indoctrination’ flow. I always find myself torn between two views of the world, that is incredibly complicated and that it is incredibly simple. I truly don’t know which as I can make arguments on both sides (you all should pity my wife for having to listen to me). But will the answer to the problem be simple or complex? Fast or slow? More and more I suspect that only archeologists will know these answers for our part of history.
Here’s some lies coming right out of the White House.
Quite reminiscent of “1984” and the constant thread of news about “The war” that was being fought incessantly, off in the background, somewhere.
Peggy, that’s a Carol King song, and it is so applicable!
I’m of the opinion that outright lies, as those from Carlson and ilk, need to be criminalized, but I, certainly, do not know how to manage that without
increasingly moving closer to still more autocracy.
The teaching of critical thinking skills could, ovr time, begin to erode the power of lies, but it will be fought tooth, and nail, by those who do not
want an educated, intelligent populace, think DeSantis, and more ilk.
It has occurred to me that, in the short term, we are witnessing the spread of a Trump virus through a very vulnerable population. When he was on the stump,
at a rally, and suggested that people ought to beat the crap (maybe a direct quote) out of a dissenter, he unleashed the horror that lives in his sick self, gave
permission to act out their worst selves; or when he made fun of the disabled reporter. He literally stripped away the veneer of civilization, went straight to the
communal human amygdala, and liberated the narcissistic, anti-social beast. He was far beyond the worst president we ever had.
Ah Becky! You haven’t been around for awhile. Wall Street Journal? That bastion of Murdoch induced truth? Perhaps if you spent a little more time offering suggestions that include solutions, rather that your endless prattling, regurgitating RW talking (lies?) points, you might serve as something other than comic relief.
TLentych. I, too, have the simple/complex problem, so I have decided that it is both. The reason? Well, I can see that it is a simple problem that we can name “lie, disinformation,” or whatever you want to call it. But the solution won’t be easy because it’s already in the minds of individuals who make up society. Remember how we say that each individual is unique? They are. And the way to eliminate a lie that a person believes is unique to that person. UGH! Ask any teacher or parent how difficult it is to teach each pupil or child how to learn the same thing. Different strokes for different folks. I’m not sure we have enough time to fix this before Mother Nature gives us all the slap down that we deserve.
One thing that free things, like free speech, share is that they have no value. If they did they would not be free. The internet is far from free speech because it is (with rare exception like Wikipedia) coated with advertising either overtly or covertly to sell some good or service.
An example of what that costs us may well be enshrined by the history that we leave behind, as the end of freedom for all (which, unintuitively, is not free). We are being sold through advertising attached to our “free” information, besides soap and cars and slip and fall lawyers, authoritarianism, which is to say a society based on class such that those in the upper class are empowered to impose on those of the lower classes.
To clarify, much of the freedom lost by the imposed on is in the form of domestication. We will feed and house you in exchange for you pretending to serve us.
The solution to this could be as simple as corporations paying them proportionally to the value that they create. It is not paying them half what they are worth and relying on taxpayers to pay the rest.
Of course the flaw in what is being sold is that humans are not and never were domestic animals. They are wild animals as we observe now in the Ukraine, but with tooth and claw enhanced by explosives.
Right-wingers like Becky make the points made earlier about concrete “thinkers” refusing to accept any truths opposing their own. They are prisoners of their own confirmation bias that leads them down the twisted path of believing lies, seeing lies as truths and rejecting truths as lies. Becky, and my FBI nemesis are poster children for legal insanity.
dbtexas – I’ll be laughing hysterically come the morning of Nov 9. So laugh now while you can.
I don’t find it too funny the price of inflation, fuel, war – especially when none of it had to happen. Biden is weak and incompetent – it’s on display every single day. Whether you believe it or not, the majority of Americans KNOW it and DON’T like it. They are living the Biden reality – they don’t need any news source to explain it to them. I bet some of them even wish the worst thing happening was reading a “mean” tweet.
November midterms – That’s a start toward a solution with substance. It’s going to be a
It is very comforting to already have the proper conclusion to a given set of facts, especially when you also have your own facts as the given set, however Aristotle might view such an exercise. Trouble is, and whether we call such an exercise illogical by design, lies or disinformation, nothing is gained in the real world of truth or falsity by such pretense other than its effect on a polity unable to distinguish either fact or conclusion from such offerings, and there’s the rub.
Perhaps we need a Supreme Court decision which precisely tells us just what “free speech” is – and isn’t, a decision that will lay out the guidelines for determining what are lies and what are truths and thus, hopefully, reinstate the old view that losers lost and winners won. Can’t be done in this angry and suspicious atmosphere? Atmospheres change, too, with Trump in our wake.
It would be nice to think that legislation could help resolve this. It can’t, though, as long as the filibuster exists to stop it all. The GOP project of disinformation and stagnation relies on the lack of any laws passing. I’m not sure it’s clear. They will do everything they can to stop every law proposed during times when Democrats have an edge in seats, but they don’t care even when they are in power. They need to undermine power, and having a failed legislative branch furthers that feeling in the voters. Basically, they are in the business of _creating_ the malcontents and conspiracy theorists.
I don’t say this lightly: the GOP is the biggest threat to western democracy that exists today.
Becky — go peddle your crazy talk elsewhere – PLEASE!!
Sheila – “I would add a requirement that schools teach media literacy.” That surely would prompt the nut jobs like Becky to open up another can of worms saying that we are trying teach kids what to think!! It is so interesting that folks like her always project their crazy delusions onto others.
Kathy M: AMEN!!
Kathy M – 🤣🤣🤣
The delusion is all yours. Elon Musk has a better handle on the geopolitical situation and energy reality than anyone in the White House. Even
Bill Maher is trying to give a dose of reality to the left. Meanwhile Manchin sinks Biden’s Federal Reserve nominee and Buttigieg tells people if they are worried about gas prices go buy a $50K + electric vehicles ??? Really – that’s a solution for the average American?
You’re not winning anyone to your side – groups are defecting. Red states are becoming redder as people leave the blue states. Amazon is pulling out of Seattle due to crime – you know that brilliant “defund the police” policy which only hurt the businesses and people who live in those communities.
But keep on believing in your liberal utopia while clutching your pearls over climate change and claiming everything on the right as “RACIST” .
Your side is SO exposed – but hey, what do I know ? 🤣🤣🤣🤣
all do able.. some countries have now made laws to criminalize false political ads. sweden has started a few years back, educating in media, in primary education..but as long as that infinate glass window exists in a form as a new toy,rather than a tool for service, the imagination reals on about whatever everyone misses,or wants to exploit. reading outside the given domain of commercialized media,is a gift,when used as a tool to distinquish between real and altered…..Voltaire.i believe said,
one who believes in absurdities will commit
where does becky come from?
Becky comes from the folks who will take the Senate and House in ’22 and the White House in ’24 because the rest of the country is too busy (and having too much fun) to care – at least the “well to do” – the poor folks are two busy trying to survive and now know, more than ever before, that “pols” of any party don’t really care about them.
Political parties have become just like religious cults. Those outside of their biggest donors are taken for granted, and for a ride. As with religious concerns,there are those in both parties walking along with blinders on, unwilling to view or listen to reality. Within these tribal forums It’s always about offering platitudes,giving out approbations and continuing to shake the pompons for the favored brand name sports team/political-party/religion/tribe.
As far as the plebes? They’re given quick derision and dismissal by the upper echelons of the organizations. Even within this particular forum,as well.
If one were to read the one constant of this forum it’s this:
We need a message (we don’t need effective action) to get those less affluent morons to support our party.
Cheap speech much?
Well-written piece, Sheila, but IMHO there is a much bigger, overarching matter that wasn’t addressed. It isn’t just the misinformation that is put out there, but the proselytization of the message that mainstream media cannot be trusted. So, it doesn’t really matter how truthful NBC, CBS, ABC, MSNBC, CNN and PBS are: the disciples to alt-right media have been conditioned not to believe what they hear or see unless it comes from alt-right sources. Sheila, these people are literally immune to facts. A recent example: there was a photo of a woman, heavy in late pregnancy, standing outside that bombed-out maternity hospital in Ukraine, and she was in obvious distress with blood on her face. Russian state media faked up a photo of this woman, claiming she was an actress, as part of its denial that it bombed a maternity hospital. Russan state TV claimed the building was an abandoned former nursing home. All of this is lies, but it went out on alt-right media here in the US. The woman’s image was out there because she was a blogger–she blogged about her pregnancy experience, but she wasn’t an actress. This is just one example, and there are many others, but the point is that there’s something more than just lying going on. Alt-right media is spreading Russian propaganda, and Russian TV is carrying attacks against Biden and his administration on their station as propaganda. Could you even begin to imagine that this was possible in the US?
Trump continues to get away with spreading the Big Lie, and the majority of Republicans believe it, despite all proof to the contrary. Trump refuses to honor the unwritten rule that former POTUSs stay out of politics and do not attack their successor. He refused to honor the tradition of graciously conceding and attending his successor’s inauguration. The reason for these traditions is to show proof to the world that America honors the peaceful transfer of power and respect for the will of the American people. There isn’t a day that goes by that Trump isn’t on television or at a rally, and he keeps on lying–not just about losing in 2020, but blaming Biden for the Ukrainian invasion because he’s “weak”, bragging that Putin wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine if his “landslide victory” hadn’t been “stolen” by a “rigged election”. When he wasn’t siding with Putin against American intelligence, he was lobbying to get Russia back into the G-7, trashing the EU and NATO. Trump was trying to find a way to pull the US out of NATO. According to reports, Putin didn’t invade Ukraine while Trump was in office because he didn’t need to–Trump was doing his bidding. Also, President Xi asked Putin to hold off until after the Olympics, which were delayed for a year due to COVID. These are the reasons the invasion didn’t happen before Trump lost. And, what was Trump going to do that Biden hasn’t done? Threaten to nuke them? Anyone who knows anything about Trump knows he’s nothing but a braggadocious liar and bullsh*tter. His phony lip biting and fist pumping are comical. But, the disciples still believe this crap.
How does this make America look to the rest of the world? But, more importantly, why do so many Americans fall for this sh*t?
Late to the party as usual but for those of you who think we’ll solve our dysfunctional political landscape by requiring “civic literacy” in our schools, I would caution you to FIRST be sure you know who is RUNNING our public schools, including charter schools, which are technically public but usually operated by for-profit charter school corps, and also private schools that accept voucher payments from state departments of education (Indiana’s is the largest in the nation).
Otherwise, what is likely to be taught as “civics” will not be what we remember from high school, but will rather be something that advances a very extremist right-wing agenda, promoted by an industrial-strength lobbying network and funded by some extremely wealthy people and corporations. Read on at the link below. The nerve center of this repugnant movement is less than 75 miles from our house!
Last, I have read many essays on the demise of the school library and staff librarians. I have to admit that the tradition notions of both seem somewhat quaint and antiquated. HOWEVER, developing a love for reading begins early and it begins by being able to see, feel and experience books…not just hear them being read by someone. That process takes years and doesn’t end when a 3rd grader passes the iRead standard exam.
But secondly, and more to the point of today’s blog entry, librarians always HAVE brought skills to their students of doing research and evaluating sources for their various projects and the ONLY thing that’s really changed is the MEDIUM!! But their role needs to be expanded to incorporate many of the principles of existing Social Emotional Learning programs in our schools to encourage and help students better manage the apps and tools that they use (and how MUCH they use) and be mindful of the harmful effects on their mental health in the process. The apps TikTok and Instagram are literally responsible for an upward trend in female tween and teen suicides.
We need more sane people on local school boards and state legislatures and soon!!
From Becky: Kathy M – 🤣🤣🤣
The delusion is all yours.
I rest my case.
I think that many don’t want to let go of the past that they remember as entitling them by endless wealth distribution up away from the creators of it, workers.
The entertainment media that they get hooked on are the ones that convinced them that what they want is possible instead of the truth that it’s not.
Somebody told me, that if Biden could walk on water, the right wing media headlines would read “Biden Can’t Swim!”. Too bad the world is not so simple as some people think.
I liked the where somebody said; Publishing the truth is hard. It is much easier to spew emotionally charged lies.
The new censorship is not to block things from being published, but to overwhelm the truth with a flood of lies/disinformation/cheap speech.
Again in the age of cheap speech, almost the only barrier to getting published it to have a working email address, and even those you can get for free.
What do you see concerning a certain lost psychological and intellectual infant?
Mesmerized by the shiny object, drawn to it like a moth to the flame!
Lol, always searching for the shiney object looking to become one! Having a form of Godly devotion but proving false to its power.
Always repeating ignorant and intellectually stunted echo chamber gasbaggery, producing enough manure to fertilize the entire planet!
The Watchman’s Rattle, ordered it.
One small plea – don’t feed the trolls.
If **** wants to state her opinions, we should not call her names, nor should argue with (AKA feed) her. She is entitled to her view, no matter how divorced from reality.
Trolls have two main purposes: (A) to make the discussion about them, and/or (B) to disrupt the normal exchange of ideas. There are many people with whom I agree that follow Sheila’s blog, and some that I disagree with, but even they give food for thought. I like the good ideas and viewpoints that I read here, beyond those of Sheila, of course. Trolls aren’t worth reading or responding to.
Please don’t squeeze the Charmin.
Don’t feed the trolls.
OK, you can squeeze the Charmin, but don’t feed the trolls.
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