“Lost in the Marketplace of Ideas: Conspiracy Theory and our Outdated First Amendment?”

This is the fourth in a series of several essays by different authors on the issue of conspiracies.  This series is sponsored by Claremont McKenna’s Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom

Stephen Macedo is the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Politics and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University

One need not agree with every detail of Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum’s The New Conspiracism, to share their worries.  Conspiracists may be armed and dangerous, but even when they are not, conspiracist thinking reflects and contributes to extreme polarization and helps delegitimize institutions.      

Crazy conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and QAnon are concerning, but they are part of a wider and deeper set of pathologies linked to extreme polarization — or political sectarianism – and the transformation of the media and communications environments. 

Polarization has many sources.  People have sorted themselves into identity-based parties and factions often defined by their opposition to, or even hatred of, rival identity groups.  There are real grievances behind some of the anger, including decades of working class wage stagnation or decline.  As good and steady employment has been lost, so too have the economic anchors of social status and meaning in life.  Working class families have weakened, marriage rates have declined.  Immigration is not a leading cause of wage stagnation in the US — globalized trade and automation have played much larger roles — but resentful citizens associate these social and economic changes with increasing demographic diversity.  Elites from the major parties on the left and the right have under-estimated public concerns about high levels of immigration, leaving an opening to Donald Trump, pro-Brexit forces, and other populists. 

My guess is that some fringe conspiracism, perhaps including QAnon, is related to the search for meaning and community: it seems to be comforting and entertaining for some folks to join others in imagining their problems are the consequence not of boring policy choices (like globalized trade) and structural economic changes (like automation), but elaborate conspiracies involving demonized figures like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.      

The right-wing media “ecosystem,” which includes AM radio, cable news, newspapers like the New York Post, and organizations like Breitbart, is much wider and more influential than the fringe conspiracists.  Progressives have their own echo-chambers which also contribute to incomprehension of opposing views. 

At the end of their Constitutionalist blog post, Muirhead and Rosenblum argue that  “the most effective antidote” to “conspiracism’s degradation of democracy… is the common sense of the people.”  But common sense, they allow “needs fortification from a public culture where knowledge is acknowledged and nourished, and where one does not mistake one’s opponents for enemies.”  So what exactly should we do?  Promote more virtuous leadership and civic education for the masses?  Yes, certainly, but what else?

Social scientists are better at analyzing problems than proposing solutions, but constitutional repair is what we need to think about, including as concerns the state of our public media environment.

For decades, newspapers and other traditional forms of journalism have seen steep decline.  Meanwhile, in a remarkably short amount of time, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have amassed enormous power.  Facebook’s 2.8 billion users outnumber the world’s Christians (at 2.4 billion), and are more than double the population of China.  Emily Bell, Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School, reports that, “By 2017, Google was bigger than the entire global print industry, in terms of advertising.”  Two-thirds of all the money spent on advertising globally goes to five companies: half to Google and Facebook with another 15% split between East Asian technology giants Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent.

Bell and other media technology scholars make abundantly clear that these communications technology giants are far more than communications intermediaries: they are the “gatekeepers of free expression.” Changes in the algorithms that govern search engines like Google and news feeds on Facebook have enormous consequences.  Consider one example: a seemingly small shift in where on its pages Facebook located its stories from news publishers led to immediate and “catastrophic” decline in user interactions with those online news sites in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bolivia and other countries where the change was made.  A non-profit investigative news organization in Serbia saw its traffic decline by more than half.  The “top sixty news publisher sites on Facebook” in Slovakia and Guatemala saw their traffic plummet by two-thirds.

And then of course there was the awesome spectacle of Twitter’s permanent banning of Donald Trump in the wake of the January 6 storming of the US Capitol.  The Washington Post reports that “Twitter purged more than 70,000 accounts associated with QAnon following the Capitol riot.”  And not only Twitter but Facebook, Snap, and some other sites – even the music access site Spotify – banned Trump and some of his followers.  Thus, with the snap of his fingers, Jack Dorsey put an end to “an era of free speech online that Twitter,” once referred to as “‘the free speech wing of the free speech party’ — had itself helped create.”

Do we need federal regulation?  Maybe, but of what sort?  Break up Facebook?  How exactly will that make things better?  Monika Bickert, the Head of Policy Management at Facebook, argues that well-intentioned interventions may have unintended and unwanted side effects.  She suggests instead that, “social media companies, governments, and civil society groups should commit to working together,” in the first instance at least, “to create well-informed content standards and effective enforcement mechanisms.”  Twitter executives evidently agonized about its decision to shut-down Trump, worrying in part about the consequences of a fragmented media environment.  It is possible that what is good for Twitter and Facebook is good for America, but we have no reason to trust in that absent a great deal more transparency about the values and processes governing their decisions.  Emily Bell argues that, “By abandoning publishing responsibility or inadequately thinking through harms that might result from its behavior in certain markets, Facebook could be seen as acting recklessly or unethically, growing its market share irrespective of consequences.” (250).

Tim Wu, one of the leading scholarly advocates for the reform of online communications platforms, suggests that an important goal of laws aimed at improving the “political speech environment” might be to “make any social media platform with significant market power a kind of trustee operating in the public interest,” and require “that it actively take steps to promote a healthy speech environment.”  I like the sound of that!  The problem, he admits, is defining in constitutional terms the standards that should guide government efforts to promote a more “healthy” speech environment?  Wu suggests that the First Amendment should be interpreted to allow Congress to promote “more bipartisanship or non-partisanship online.”  A worthy goal for the “elected branches,” says Wu in a 2019 essay,  would be “to try returning the country to the kind of media environment that prevailed in the 1950’s.” 

Assuming that that would be an improvement – which Wu himself seems uncertain about — how exactly is that to be done, given today’s extreme partisan polarization?  What about reviving the so-called “fairness doctrine” that was applied to broadcasting in the 1950’s?  Wu rules that out, saying that it would be “too hard to administer, too prone to manipulation, and too apt to flatten what has made the internet interesting and innovative.”

So, instead of “Back to the Future” it’s back to the drawing board.  One thing that seems clear is that America’s reigning pieties concerning free speech and the “marketplace of ideas” need updating.  

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