Last week our Faculty Director, Prof. Guy-Uriel Charles, participated in a symposium on the Balkinization blog about Professor Rick Hasen’s recently published book Cheap Speech: How Disinformation Poisons Our Politics-and How to Cure It. Among other fixes, Hasen chiefly argues that the rapid spread of political disinformation and misinformation can be mitigated by modest regulations, in the public and private sphere, to restrict the spread of misinformation on social media.
Expounding on the thesis of Cheap Speech and the contribution of Prof. Hasen’s work, Prof. Charles posits that the reality is the demand for misinformation and disinformation in partisan echo-chambers is a larger driver of our current moment of democratic crisis than the widespread availability of such sources, a problem of supply. Read an excerpt:
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To the extent that voters are seeking information that is consistent with their partisan identities or confirms their priors, then the market is working perfectly. There is no market failure, given that the market is supplying precisely what the people want. Republicans seek and get the information they like; Democrats seek and get the information they like. Everyone gets to live within their echo chamber, and no one must be confronted with ideas and information that makes them uncomfortable. Of course, this is no way to run a democracy.
Cheap Speech is extremely compelling on its own terms. At the same time, Rick’s exhaustive exposition raises the question whether we have the right model for understanding the problem. If the problem of misinformation presents a demand-side problem, or to the extent that there is both a demand-side and supply-side problem, supply-side only solutions are not likely to resolve the problem. Similarly, to the extent that we have a supply-side problem, then demand-side solutions are not going to suffice.
If it is the case that political disinformation is at least about voter preferences as it is about politicians and social media platforms, solutions to the problem are much more complex. Modern democracies are not very good about figuring out what to do when voters get exactly what they want and what voters want is actually bad for democracy. Tweaking the law and relying upon private ordering is less than optimal, if the goal is a resolution of the problem. Rather, the focus will need to be on structural political and economic reforms. Rick does a great job in helping us understand what’s possible. The next step is coming to terms with what is necessary.