Hello, fellow Earthlings! I now want to conclude my multi-part series on the problem of misinformation (see here, here, here, and here) by posing a simple rhetorical question: What’s so bad about misinformation and conspiracy theories and the like? After all, misinformation is an age-old problem; conspiracy theories have always existed, even in colonial times (see here, for example).
In fact, the irony of this entire series on the problem of misinformation is that, as my colleague and friend Matthew Yglesias has recently explained (see here), people are probably better informed now about most matters than in any other time in history. So even if Pozen, Benkler, Kapczynsky, and others are correct to believe that the Internet has made it easier for people to spread baseless conspiracy theories and other forms of fake news, at the same time the Internet has also made it easier to discover the relevant facts about any particular controversy. At worst, both of these information effects just cancel each other out.
More importantly, as I never get tired of repeating, the optimal level of misinformation in a free society is not zero. If some people want to believe that Big Pharma created the pandemic to boost profits or that Donald Trump is a Russian agent or that UFOs are real (oops!), they should not only be free to hold these beliefs; they should also be free to spread their beliefs and persuade others they are right, no matter how zany or wrong their beliefs are. At a minimum, living in a free society means that we must tolerate some level of stupidity and ignorance from our fellow citizens and neighbors. To conclude, misinformation is the price we pay for living in a free society, a sign that we are living in a vibrant and healthy democracy, not a sick or decaying one.