Note: This is my 13th blog post in a multi-part series on conspiracy theories
As I mentioned at the end of my previous blog post, a rising tide of voices, especially in academia, are calling for direct regulation of social media platforms and other vigorous policy proposals in order to curb the spread of conspiracy theories and other dangerous ideas on the Internet, e.g. QAnon, fake news, etc. Most recently, by way of example, Kevin Roose, a technology columnist for The New York Times, surveyed a group of “experts” about this growing problem. See “How the Biden Administration Can Help Solve Our Reality Crisis,” N.Y. Times, Feb. 2, 2021.
According to Roose, these experts recommend the Biden administration to appoint a cross-agency task force “to tackle disinformation and domestic extremism.” The task force would be led by a “reality czar,” who would coordinate the federal government’s response to conspiracy theories and other forms of “disinformation.” Worse yet, Roose himself agrees with these experts: “I’ve spent the past several years reporting on our national reality crisis, and I worry that unless the [federal government] treats conspiracy theories and disinformation as the urgent threats they are, our parallel universes will only drift further apart, and the potential for violent unrest and civic dysfunction will only grow.”
But who is to judge what constitutes “disinformation”? Do you really trust the government to get this right? If Donald J. Trump, for example, were to win re-election in 2024, who would his “reality czar” be? In any case, even if Roose’s ill-advised and dangerous proposal is never carried out, social media companies are finally beginning to adopt new policies to curb the spread of conspiracy theories. Facebook, for example, has been tweaking its algorithms to slow down the spread of fake news:
“Reducing the spread of false news on Facebook is a responsibility that we take seriously. We also recognize that this is a challenging and sensitive issue. We want to help people stay informed without stifling productive public discourse. There is also a fine line between false news and satire or opinion. For these reasons, we don’t remove false news from Facebook but instead, significantly reduce its distribution by showing it lower in the News Feed.” (See here and here.)
Alas, I object! Simply put, I have a deep philosophical objection to all these private and public calls for action: they stifle speech and suffocate the marketplace of ideas, i.e. the idea that best way to deal with false ideas is with more ideas. According to our classical liberal tradition and John Stuart Mill (see below), the best test of the truth of an idea depends on its direct competition with other ideas, not on the opinion of a censor or a “reality czar” or a secret algorithm or whatever. The rise of conspiracy thinking in the Internet Age, however, is said to pose a direct challenge to this ideal, and a growing chorus of legal scholars and public intellectuals are openly rejecting Mill’s market metaphor. Stay tuned: I will review and respond to this misguided critique in my next blog post …