There is no particular reason to think that Americans are more or less likely to hold wrong beliefs than they have been throughout the history that Richard Hofstadter covered in his famous The Paranoid Style in American Politics, published over half a century ago. The young United States, then still sporting among the highest literacy rates in the world, was awash in falsehoods and bile when the Sedition Act was passed; or when pro-slavery warnings or Know Nothing anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic cartoons and opinion pieces abounded in daily and weekly papers, often alongside patent medicine advertisements. And misinformation and disinformation have never only come from the unwashed peripheries. Americans believed the Vietnam War was necessary and winnable, and millions believed Iraq had had a role in 9/11 or was holding weapons of mass destruction. Hundreds of millions believe that wearing a shoe with a swoosh will make them cool; wearing this or that perfume or shirt will make them desirable; or buying this or that clever brand will give their lives meaning. We live awash in falsehoods. And the business model of two of the most valuable companies in the world is built on nothing but the belief of advertisers and investors alike that they will, finally, crack the code of manipulating our desires and wants to at long last fully align manufactured demand with whatever it is the advertisers are ready and able to sell.
The entire framework of “marketplace of ideas” or “truth will drive out lies” is a fairy tale, a ritual incantation mainstream elites recite to ourselves to bridge the yawning gap between our reality and the governing conceptions of markets and democracy as domains of more-or-less rational choice, by more-or-less rational individuals, aggregated through more-or-less well-functioning markets or electoral systems to deliver a reasonable, stable, and above all legitimate system astride which we, miraculously or by merit, have found ourselves sitting.
The reality, of course, is and always has been much different. At least since the rise of the penny press, a journalist, as Harold Innis put it 70 years ago, became “one who wrote on the back of advertisements.” In our present era, Rush Limbaugh picked up the mantle of Father Coughlin and made big business out of stoking outrage in large audiences to make them feel good about themselves, while reinforcing their sense that they were living in a society governed by elites that were taking them for fools.
And on the latter point, he wasn’t wrong. The driving force of our present epistemic crisis is that elite institutions, including mainstream media, in fact failed the majority of the people for over four decades. Throughout the neoliberal period, elite consensus implemented policies and propagated narratives that underwrote and legitimated the rise of a small oligarchic elite at the expense of delivering economic insecurity to the many. These material drivers of justified distrust were compounded by profound changes in political culture that drove movements, on both the right and the left, to reject the authority structures of mid-20th century high modernism. The New Left, Nader’s Raiders, and postmodern critique of science did no less to dismantle trust in objective neutral truth than did the acerbic attacks on the very possibility of decent democratic governance by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, or George Stigler’s attacks on the possibility of publicly oriented regulation, the sustained attacks on science by business whenever science threatened to cut into profits, or the cynical politicians who sought to harness the visceral politics of white identity and evangelical fervor to the “party of business.” We will never get Walter Cronkite’s “that’s the way it is” back, nor should we yearn for it, because that wasn’t the way it really was for the majority of people back then either.
There are two critical facts we need to keep in mind as we look at free speech in the next two decades. First, disinformation, misinformation, and broad popular confusion are the product of business models and political strategies designed by elites to make more money or garner more political power at the expense of the majority of the population. The crisis of American democracy is not caused by neutral factors like technology or some baseline population-level psychological dynamic, nor is it a passing infatuation with a masterful con man. It is simply the wreckage that neoliberalism has left us. It won’t be solved by more fact-checking, Twitter notices, or Facebook oversight boards. It won’t be solved by increasing the budget of the intelligence industrial complex to identify foreign trolls or hacks. It will be solved, if at all, by building a multiracial coalition aimed to construct an inclusive social democracy in which people actually have a stake and have reason to trust governing elites.
Second, the United States is on track for at least one, possibly several bouts of government held by a political party exhibiting increasingly authoritarian tendencies. School boards and many an official are zealously moving along, seeking to disprove Justice Robert H. Jackson wrong in his assertion that “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” We needn’t soothe ourselves with myths of the marketplace of ideas to recognize that whatever we do to deal with our present crisis, we must remember the first, and most important role of the First Amendment, as an anti-authoritarian provision, and where feasible and not inconsistent with that first role, deployed in such a way that it “does not sanction repression of that freedom by private interests.”
Yochai Benkler is the Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, and co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.