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.