Can We Still Trust the Marketplace of Ideas to Win Out?

By Russ Feingold

Social media and the lack of shared facts presents challenges to a legitimate democracy. Having shared facts is an important facet to a democracy and efforts must be made by all reputable media companies to promote the truth. Facebook announced changes to its newsfeed to combat false news stories and people are also taking matters into their own hands: you can find out if twitter comments were generated by a bot because of these bright students.

Sometimes it seems as if we have been living in a post-factual world where the commitment to facts is of little or no value anymore. And leading the pack on his lack of adherence to truth is our current president. I make it a point to not follow the tweet of the moment. But his repeated assertion that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” would top the charts for me as something he has said that is false, and truly damaging to our democracy.

Skirting the truth (like saying that the GOP tax scam isn’t only for the obscenely wealthy), or skipping it altogether (trickle-down economics serves the middle class and explained Reagan’s economic growth. . . ), is not new in politics. What’s new are the social media platforms that can help people, or presidents, spread false news at record pace, and the resulting threat is not only to reputations or even public policy, but to our very democratic institutions.

In all the talk of “fake news,” there is a distinction that must be made, and it is that between the personal or politically pragmatic, and the institutional. False news that sells a tax plan almost entirely on false analysis and empty promises is a big problem, and must be condemned, but false news that undermines our institutions is an existential threat to our democracy.

One of the most pressing examples of this threat to institutions is the entirely fabricated threat of “voter fraud” made by Trump and was carried forward by Vice President Pence with his sham voter commission. The recent dissolution of the sham commission was welcome, but conflicting reports of their work shifting to the Department of Homeland Security, or not, are worrying, and only confirm that the Republicans won’t let go of this false story line and don’t mind trying to confuse everybody. But rather than voter fraud being a threat to individual candidates, the fabricated existence of voter fraud is a threat to our elections and our democracy. It becomes a “justification” by some for voter suppression.

Americans should be increasingly aware of the existence of false news by now, and certainly most thinking people eye suspiciously almost anything that Trump says. The problem is that we do not all agree on which news is false and which isn’t. And what legal protections do exist are more likely to protect false news than protect the truth.

The Supreme Court noted in Texas v. Johnson, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreement.” Or false. The First Amendment protects speech, whether false, true, or even fantastical, with only a few limited exceptions such as defamation.

If we cannot take false news to court and beat it, what is the solution? I recently completed a study with students from Stanford University about the roles of digital newsstands — Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Reddit — in proliferating false news and misinformation. The good news is that there is more that these social media platforms can be doing to combat false news. Just like companies have a responsibility to issue recalls on faulty products, social media platforms should adopt some level of civic responsibility. Algorithms can be changed. New features can be added to make it easier to report and flag false news.

However, the existence of false news cannot be thrown entirely at the doorstep of those who control the wild west of social media technology. There is a limit to what they can do. False news cannot be removed entirely, nor should it. Not because false news is necessarily good for discourse, but because censorship is bad for democracy. The best defeat of false news would not be to censor it; instead, it would be a national shrug, a national “eh, not interested.” To get there, however, is an uphill battle against people’s pre-disposition to seek out news that reinforces their existing beliefs and views, and to tune in to sensationalized news.

To overcome this takes diligence. Promoting the truth has become the new civic responsibility — the social media version of recycling or not littering. It is not enough to see false news and consciously not give into it. There has to be a proactive responsibility on behalf of every individual to identify and label it for what it is and we must all, to some extent, take matters into our own hands.

Social platforms can help with this. For instance, Twitter could create a “false news” option that would enable users to report and/or flag false content, and it could create more options for reacting to tweets than just “like” and “retweet.” Imagine if every Kris Kobach tweet alleging voter fraud was met with thousands of “dislikes,” or flagged as possibly containing false information? It would not end the debate. But, would it give people pause?

If nothing else, it would create another measuring stick other than “likes.” What if suddenly “likes” could be compared to “dislikes,” or the number of times a tweet was flagged as containing false information? People could “dislike” truthful statements, and like false ones, so this is not a perfect remedy. The marketplace of ideas provides no perfect solution to countering falsehoods. But, we could do more to tip the online marketplace of ideas in favor of the truth.

Talking heads and policy proposals from Washington will inevitably skirt the truth at times, or skip it altogether. Our democracy has and can withstand such depravity. The same cannot be said for the toxicity of false news and information aimed at the pillars of our democracy like voting rights. Social media platforms and consumers alike have a responsibility to push back and to defend the truth in the name of democracy.

It’s absolutely necessary to feel motivated about the 2018 elections, in spite of efforts to make voting harder for our fellow citizens, particularly in minority communities. Good candidates can prevail in spite of false news stories pushed around on social media, as we saw in Virginia and Alabama last year.

Lies and distortions about voter fraud must continue to be repudiated, even as they have taken root in some corners of social media platforms. At the same time, Americans’ demands for accurate voting systems that are accessible and safe from tampering, must be heard. Secure American elections with integrity is an achievable goal, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.