The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Since the 2016 election, there has been widespread concern about "fake news" and many proposals to combat it by constraining the supply, particularly that from foreign sources, such as the hostile authoritarian regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Fake news is a genuine problem and Putin really is a ruthless enemy of western liberalism and democracy that western nations should do more to counter. But Canadian columnist Andrew Coyne has a valuable critique of claims that we can overcome the problem by regulating the supply of fake news:
I have an urgent warning for the people of Canada. Even now, certain agents are plotting to influence the result of the next election campaign by means of stealth and deception.
Posing as ordinary Canadians, they plan to use social media to spread falsehoods designed to inflame public opinion, using the latest micro-targeting technologies to tailor their messages to the reader's particular fears and prejudices.
These agents are better known as the political parties….
No one disputes that Russia, China and others have interfered or attempted to interfere in recent elections around the world, notably in the election that gave us Trump (okay, Trump still disputes it)… But the impact of "fake news"…. is more debatable….
I don't want to say that "fake news" doesn't matter. But to the extent that it matters, it would appear the problem is less the supply than the demand: the willingness, indeed the desire of large numbers of people to believe transparent falsehoods. But then, without it what becomes of politics?
What is true of Canada is even more true for the United States: The fake news generated by Russian and other foreign plants is trivial compared to that produced by our own political parties and their homegrown partisan and activist allies. John Sides, Michael Tesler, Lynn Vavreck's new book Identity Crisis, the most thorough social science analysis of the 2016 election, concludes that the impact of Russian-generated fake news was virtually undetectable in the data, and certainly trivial compared to that of homegrown misinformation, xenophobic attitudes and partisan polarization, which helped Trump eke out a narrow victory.
And, as Coyne points out, our own political parties routinely spread politically potent misinformation on a far larger and more effective scale than foreign-generated bots do. That was certainly true of Donald Trump's campaign, which relied extensively on bogus claims about immigration and trade. But while Trump is particularly brazen in his lies and deceptions, conventional politicians also routinely use such tactics, even if more subtly and less indiscriminately. It's hard to point to any one lie told by Trump that was as successful as Barack Obama's "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it," a deserving winner of Politifact's 2013 "Lie of the Year" award. I would be happy to see Trump removed from office. But we should not imagine that the problem of political disinformation is limited to him and his supporters, or that it is mainly caused by Russian plants infiltrating our otherwise largely pure and wholesome political environment.
Indeed, Coyne's best insight is that the true root of the problem is not the supply of fake news, but the demand for it. In a relatively free society, there will always be people willing to spread lies and disinformation. The real danger is that so many people are willing to consume such material—and eagerly believe it when they do. If not for such avid consumers, political misinformation would cause little, if any, harm.
Part of the reason why many people are susceptible to deceptions and "fake news" is widespread public ignorance. Most voters know very little about government and public policy, in large part because itis actually rational for them to devote no more than a small fraction of their time to following political issues. Since an individual vote has only an infinitesimally small chance of influencing electoral outcomes, it makes little sense for most citizens to spend substantial time and effort learning about politics in order to become better voters. Unfortunately, such individually rational voter behavior can cause harmful collective outcomes. People who know very little about political issues are, by virtue of that ignorance, more susceptible to misinformation. Politicians and interest groups are well aware of this vulnerability, and routinely exploit it.
But the problem here goes beyond simple ignorance. As Coyne suggests, many people are actively eager to believe dubious claims, so long as doing so confirms their preexisting views. Particularly in our current environment of severe political polarization, partisans often act not as truth-seekers, but as "political fans" eager to endorse anything that supports their position or casts the opposing party and its supporters in a bad light. These biases affect not only ordinary voters, but also otherwise highly knowledgeable ones, and even policymakers and politicians. This helps explain why many people eagerly consume crude misinformation, without giving careful thought to the validity of the claims made.
There is no easy solution to these problems. Individual voters can do a lot to better inform themselves and curb their biases. But I am skeptical that many will do so anytime soon. In my view, the better approach is systematic reform to limit and decentralize the power of government, so as to reduce the potential harm caused by voter ignorance and bias. There are a variety of other possible solutions, as well. Regardless, the beginning of wisdom on the issue of fake news is to recognize—as Andrew Coyne does—that the root of the problem is demand, not supply. And as long as the demand remains high, there will be plenty of willing suppliers.