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.
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While I agree with the basic theme of the article, a couple critical elements in my estimation are missing. When you have a growing citizenry that is intellectually LAZY and self-absorbed, this plays right into the media “morass.” Many folks will not take the time or energy to decipher elements of truth, no matter what the news source. CRITICAL THINKING requires calories expended! In addition, can we rely on our population being classically trained in liberal education & cognitive reasoning, which seems dubious at this juncture? How many people under age 30 have had a basic “civics” class? An uninformed electorate is just as dangerous, if not more so, regardless of any media bias. Discernment is hard earned. I get the impression we may be cutting a few too many corners in that regard…
Government schools miseducate people into incapability; which, by some amazing coincidence, continuously increases the number of people unable to take care of themselves independently and thus forced to rely on the government for their continued existence. This keeps the elite class in place (in both the public and private sectors), and the process continues until whatever productive people remain realize what is going on. The latter occurred under the Covid lockdowns and in particular the requirement that children study from home, where their parents could see what amazing absurdities and hateful doctrines their teachers have been promulgating.
What is essential now is that this new transparency continue and expand, in order to keep the public informed and hence vigilant as regards the appalling damage those who exercise power in the great majority of the nation’s institutions have been doing. Under the current system, any responsibility for regulating disinformation is given into the hands of the very people who have a vested interest in covering up this damage. Thus the emergent transparency is necessary if the public is to begin to hold responsible those in authority over all areas of life, not just government but certainly including it.