The drumbeat for government oversight of what Americans see and hear is getting louder. Earlier this month, former President Barack Obama lent his support. In speeches at the University of Chicago and Stanford University, Obama argued that “the growth of social media and technology whose product design monetizes anger and resentment . . . undermines our democracy” and that “regulation has to be part of the answer.” Another speaker at the Stanford event said that the regulation “should be at the algorithmic level” and should cover data gathering.
According to reports on the events, neither Obama nor the other speaker I just cited—Maria Ressa, a journalist from the Philippines—called for governments to outlaw certain speech or compel any speech. Instead, what Obama and Ressa want is softer censorship—that is, governments making it harder for people to find or promote online content that the authorities deem problematic. However, the regulations Obama and Ressa endorse present a greater threat to democracy than does the disinformation they say motivates them.
One problem with their ideas is that their finger-pointing at social media is misplaced. A recent academic study examined how major media outlets Fox News and CNN bias their news and how it affects viewers. The two outlets present quite different views of the world to their audiences. For example, in September 2020, CNN spent 21,244 words asserting that then-President Donald Trump had failed to protect the U.S. from COVID-19. At the same time, Fox News spent 2,086 words on the topic. And Fox News spent 15,236 words talking about Democrats’ support for “extreme racial ideology/protests,” while CNN spent 1,300 words on the topic.
Unsurprisingly, the scholars found that when viewers switched from watching Fox News to CNN, their knowledge and beliefs became more closely aligned with those of Democrats, at least on some topics, and they knew much less about topics on which Fox News reported. This implies that these viewers did not use social media or other sources of information to compensate for their new diet of CNN bias.
This finding implies that broadcast media is more powerful than social media for some types of people, which weakens Obama’s claim that the rise of internet companies is a major concern. The finding also points to a danger: If the government can influence what people see, it can make them relatively ignorant of the data and opinions the government dislikes. Government officials are often significant actors in spreading false information: From 2009 through 2020, Politifact attributed its “Lie of the Year” at least five times to specific politicians and other times to groups of politicians.
The answer to bad information isn’t a greater information gatekeeper role for government; rather it is more voices. Sorting truth from bad information is hard: As my AEI colleague Bret Swanson has pointed out, those who put themselves in that role often get it wrong, leaving us little assurance that a government gatekeeper would result in more truthful statements.
Additionally, truth is often complex, requiring the time and effort of many people for it to emerge: Politifact’s 2017 Lie of the Year was Trump’s claim that Russian interference in the 2016 election was fake news. Politifact was correct that Russian organizations placed political ads during the 2016 election, but there is growing evidence that the Trump-Russia narrative was created from whole cloth by Trump’s political opponents. Both Politifact and Trump were correct, but neither was complete in what they said.
What’s needed are platforms that facilitate competition among information providers and algorithm providers, much as I described in an earlier piece. This is indeed beginning to happen. Former mainstream journalists, such as Bari Weiss, are starting new forms of journalistic outlets that have the potential to replace legacy newspapers. Sites such as Locals and Substack are providing citizens with opportunities to hear from non-journalists. And, as I have previously explained, a revitalized Twitter or renewed Facebook could allow competition among algorithms so that people can more easily learn from multiple sources, which helps people grow in their understanding of the world around them.
Obama is wrong that government regulation of what people see would promote democracy or, more specifically, promote freedom. Such controls have done the opposite throughout history and would this time too.
Originally published by the American Enterprise Institute. Republished with permission.