Last week, acclaimed author Salman Rushdie presided over a wide-ranging conversation about lies and free speech with the Knight Institute’s Executive Director Jameel Jaffer and Chief of Staff Larry Siems at a public panel sponsored by NYU’s Carter Journalism Institute.
The 75-minute discussion touched on a number of controversies and challenges relating to the perceived explosion of untruths online: the de-platforming of former President Trump, how to respond to disinformation about elections and COVID, the nature of truth in a polarized society, the dangers inherent in regulating lies, and even whether the problem of lies may be overstated.
“We live in an age in which truth is a very contested thing. It’s not easy to agree on what is the truth against which the lie operates,” said Rushdie, currently a distinguished writer in residence at NYU. “I wake up every day and see this democracy under attack at its root,” he added. “The lie seems to be more powerful than the truth.”
Siems argued that arriving at truth is “not a winnable war” but warned that in dealing with harmful lies, American society is now asking the First Amendment to do the work that has traditionally been done through a variety of now-diminished social codes. So when it comes to problems like hate speech, he said, “I don’t think banning [it] is a way of stopping people from thinking bad thoughts.”
For his part, Jaffer said he was “not entirely convinced” that misinformation is as significant a source of our current political problems as it may seem. He also wondered why the conversation about misinformation so often overlooked lies told by government actors. He pointed to government lies about the war in Southeast Asia, the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, and the use of drones by the U.S. military.
Jaffer added that in a world in which private companies increasingly control the public square, “We need to think seriously about the application of these big free speech principles to the context we’re living in now. We need to develop an understanding of the First Amendment that prevents [government] from distorting the marketplace of ideas, but creates space for legislation that would actually serve democratic ends.”
Click the video below to watch the full discussion. And for more on this topic, visit our Lies and the Law initiative, which includes blog posts, videos of public roundtables, and panel videos from a day-long symposium held on April 8.
A. Adam Glenn is a writer/editor at the Knight Institute.