Nate Persily of Stanford Law is emerging as the leading authority on the effect of the internet and social media on political campaigns.  His recent article in the Journal of Democracy displays Persily’s strengths: deep research, clarity of exposition and a grasp of what is significant in the messy world of facts. He is unmistakably alarmed: indeed, in interviews, he has said so.  Persily fears that a ruthless marriage of technology to “fake news” can destroy the prospects for responsible democratic deliberation.

Where does this discussion of fake news go from here, and what are the pitfalls? Professor Persily notes that the dominant Internet platforms are moving toward policies to help readers locate the bona fide news items. Facebook now works with traditional media organizations and fact-checking enterprises to “flag” dubious stories. Some readers will accept this role, as a responsible exercise of power, while others will see it as an expansion of great market power. Or, in Persily’s words:

[Market] power far in excess of that which legacy media institutions had in their heyday, let alone today. Especially in an environment in which the regulated speech—whether hate speech, fake news, or otherwise—tends to predominate on one side of the political spectrum, they cannot escape the charge that their new rules are biased either in intent or in effect.

Persily makes clear that the issues are complex but he sees large questions of policy to which answers are required if we are to have “integrity” of information on which democratic debate depends.

This is tricky territory for policy making. The task of designing these policies confronts, in the first place, wide differences within the news-consuming public about what is fake and what is real. Of course, there are easily identifiable extremes, such as the kind of “stories” that beckon to shoppers at check out counters from the front pages of tabloids. Some may buy these tall tales, but a policy with implications for free speech is not easily devised to catch just the gross falsehoods. It is the series of gradations from true to misleading to inarguably false that pose the challenge. Moreover, the gains of policies focused on preposterous lies are unclear, since denying fodder for the reader ready to be convinced that Candidate X is a murderer does not mean that he or she will now turn to more reliable sources of information and become a better-informed citizen.

We also see that consumers of this information don’t always distinguish between what is fake and what is just politically or morally unacceptable. Just this last weekend, the New York Times Public Editor seemingly admonished her readership and members of the newsroom for revolting against the addition of former Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens to the ranks of regular Times op-ed contributors. It seems that for some critics,among readers and in the Times newsroom, his policy views fall outside acceptable boundaries; but, in the accusation that he is a climate change denier, there are critics who have linked this failing to his embrace of fake facts, or his rejection of real ones. The line between an argument that someone is wrong and the charge that the person is a liar tends often to be indistinct. In fact, it a natural impulse to attempt to discredit a view on the grounds that it is just false, factually flawed, rather than poorly reasoned. Things are simpler that way.

One argument for policies to combat fake news is that it is very new. Undoubtedly the technology is new. But the resort in periods of high political passion to outright fabrications of “news” is not. As Persily is careful to show, it is not easily determined when these manipulations, distortions, or fantasies have large impact. He notes recent scholarship by Stanford’s Hunt Allcott and New York University’s Matthew Gentzkow that suggests the difficulty facing any conclusion that fake news had a decisive or material effect on the 2016 presidential election.

One line of inquiry to be pursued in deciding on fake news policy is what consumers of truly fake news do with it. Is it persuasive to anyone not already in the market for this sort of material? Do the dedicated devourers of this material generally vote?

Behind all this is the question of how voters do or do not “deliberate” on reliable information in making policy and electoral choices. Democrats tend to stick with Democratic beliefs about the facts, and Republicans do the same, and what each believes is true about the world may diverge sharply and follow their different partisan preferences. Did Iraq have weapons of mass destruction, and were they found? Did the Clinton Administration reduce the deficit? Many Republican and Democrats can be expected to give different answers.

The implications of this research are not promising for the development of widely accepted policies targeted at “fake news.” As Allcott and Gentzkow write, “ In our theoretical framework… actions [to combat fake news] may increase social welfare, but identifying fake news sites and articles also raises important questions about who becomes the arbiter of truth.” And there is the further, nagging question of where the problem lies–in the technology, or in a political culture in which Democrats and Republicans differ on basic facts, and Times readers don’t want to hear from Bret Stephens.

Maybe the technology is just powerful, and its misuses are, unfortunately, what we should expect: human, not machine, failure.

Leave a Reply