The New York Times has carried two pieces in the last days on the Internet politics, each making a case for its contribution to degraded democracy. Michael Birnbaum writes about the influence of rightist websites in Europe as both the Netherlands and France head into national elections. Tom Edsall adds a thoughtful, more academic note, interviewing scholars and citing to various studies that generally reinforce a dark message about “democracy, disrupted.” The Edsall analysis also takes on the question of whether this disruption plays favorites, helping more the left or the right, and he concludes as follows:
There is good reason to think that the disruptive forces at work in the United States — as they expand the universe of the politically engaged and open the debate to millions who previously paid little or no attention — may do more to damage the left than strengthen it. In other words, just as the use of negative campaign ads and campaign finance loopholes to channel suspect contributions eventually became routine, so too will be the use of social media to confuse and mislead the electorate.This is a significant coupling of concerns about the uses of social media with two of the prominent planks in the campaign finance reform program. Edsall may mean that each disserves democracy in its own way, or that there is an interaction among these developments that is generally helpful to conservative, and inimical to progressive, politics.
What is also unclear is why these means are closely associated with a specified political end. For example, what is it about a “negative campaign ad” that is markedly more useful to the right-wing sponsor? There are times when the anger can be turned in the opposite direction, as Republican Members of Congress recently found in their town hall meetings; and this anger is finding expression through social media, on TV, and surely in the election to come, in negative campaign advertising. Those same angry progressive voices will be amplified only if the required funding is available. “Loopholes”--as some understand Super PACs or (c)(4) issue advocacy to be--will flourish on the left and right alike.
Nate Persily has written intriguingly about the “dangers” and “opportunities” presented by the increasing prominence, and perhaps eventual dominance, of Internet platforms as outlets for paid political speech. We’re not in a television age anymore, he cautions. Now we have portals that have fundamental decisions to make about whether and how to apply policies devised for commercial speech to political communications. Those decisions concern standards of tone, fairness, accuracy and content, e.g. hate speech, but also those of transparency, such as requiring more complete disclosure than the just an organization’s name might provide of the true sources of financing for its paid ad.
The opportunity Professor Persily sees is for these Internet platforms to effect policies beyond the constitutional authority and probably the political reach of the government. The danger he points out is that private organizations may use their market power to engage in censorship practices and to do so without full transparency or accountability.
This is a timely, insightful call for attention to a transition in the political marketplace that might otherwise escape full and searching notice. A major problem is the one of trying to have it both ways. We might ask these Internet platforms to be restrained in the exercise of their power in some respects, but less in others, depending entirely on variable judgments of the worthiness of the goals. Professor Persily has suggested measures to address what he describes as “well-known pathologies of the campaign finance system.”