A couple of days ago, in a comment to that day’s post, Paul Ogden placed considerable blame for America’s current polarization on the media environment we inhabit. He’s right (although I don’t think the “bubble” of rightwing news sources is incompatible with the research showing that racial animosity motivates many, if not most, Trump supporters.)
Here’s the problem: Thanks to Fox News, Sinclair, Breitbart and thousands of others on and off the web, we don’t have a “marketplace of ideas.” A marketplace contains a wide variety of “goods” openly competing against each other. But research has shown that those on the right, especially, get almost all of their news from sources that confirm their pre-existing biases. That ideological loyalty, and the decimation of local newspapers (the vestigial Indianapolis Star just announced yet another round of newsroom cuts), has prompted political propagandists to pretend to be local news outlets. The New York Times recently reported on one such effort: a nationwide operation of 1,300 supposedly local sites publishing articles produced by Republican groups and corporate P.R. firms.
The rise of a media ecosystem devoted to active disinformation poses a huge dilemma for people who–like me–tend to be First Amendment purists. I agree with the value judgment implicit in free speech jurisprudence: the circulation of bad ideas is certainly dangerous, but allowing government to decide which ideas may be circulated would be even more dangerous.
The First Amendment requires government to be content neutral. It forbids government from censoring points of view–as Justice Holmes memorably put it, the Amendment “protects the idea we hate.” But that doesn’t preclude any and all government action.
Last Sunday, in a profoundly important cover story for the Times Magazine, Emily Bazelon considered the problem and some potential solutions.
Bazelon began with an example, showing how one remark was twisted from its original context into an absolutely false accusation of wrongdoing. She followed that with an important observation: the spewing of falsehoods isn’t meant to win the battle of ideas; it is meant to prevent that battle from being fought.
This takes us back to Paul’s observation about closed media ecosystems. There is no battle between ideas, because they aren’t expressed in the same marketplace. They aren’t contending against contrary opinions–they’re hermetically sealed against them. Scholars at Harvard analyzed hyperlinks of four million articles, and found that the conservative media did not counter lies and distortions, but actively recycled them through other like-minded outlets.
Bazelon points out the fatal flaw of Citizens United and preceding cases equating money with speech. “By requiring the state to treat alike categories of speakers — corporations and individuals — the Supreme Court began to go far beyond preventing discrimination based on viewpoint or the identity of an individual speaker.”
Bazelon’s article is a lengthy tour de force. I really urge you to click through and read it in its entirety, because it is not limited to a series of examples of disinformation and the damage caused–she tackles the all-important question: what can we do about it? Are there measures consistent with the First Amendment that can help restore a genuine marketplace of ideas?
Several of the rules currently imposed by European countries would pass constitutional muster here, and regulations we’ve jettisoned could be revived; she points to former rules on diversity of ownership (until the 1980s, FCC rules barred a single entity from owning a TV station and newspaper in the same local market). We can–and should–beef up anti-trust enforcement.
Online, government could require additional disclosures–identifying the producers and funders of election advertisements. And as she notes, there is no legal barrier to increasing the delivery of reliable information. Government could fund nonprofit journalism or create additional public radio and television outlets. At the least, government could condition the existing legal immunity of social media platforms on more effective efforts to counter disinformation.
In her final paragraph, she explains what is at stake.
As we hurtle toward the November election with a president who has trapped the country in a web of lies, with the sole purpose, it seems, of remaining in office, it’s time to ask whether the American way of protecting free speech is actually keeping us free. Hannah Arendt finished her classic work on totalitarianism in the early 1950s, after barely escaping Germany with her life, leaving friends and homeland behind. She was a Jewish intellectual who saw the Nazis rise to power by demonizing and blaming Jews and other groups with mockery and scorn. The ideal subject of fascist ideology was the person “for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience),” Arendt wrote, “and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.” An information war may seem to simply be about speech. But Arendt understood that what was at stake was far more.
Read it. It’s important.