The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

'Cheap speech and what it has done (to American democracy)'


A very interesting article by Richard L. Hasen (a professor at the University of California at Irvine) and Hasen's Los Angeles Times op-ed based on the paper; here's an excerpt of the op-ed:

The rise of what we might call "cheap speech" [on the Internet] has … fundamentally altered both how we communicate and the nature of our politics, endangering the health of our democracy. The path back to a more normal political scene will not be easy.

In the old days, just a handful of TV networks controlled the airwaves, and newspapers served as gatekeepers for news and opinion content. A big debate back in the 1980s and earlier was how to enable free expression for those who did not own or work for a media company and wanted to get a message out.

In 1995, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh wrote a … Yale Law Journal article looking ahead to the coming Internet era. In "Cheap Speech and What It Will Do," Volokh foresaw the rise of streaming music and video services such as Spotify and Netflix, the emergence of handheld tablets for reading books, the demise of classified advertising in the newspaper business, and more generally how technology would usher in radical new opportunities for readers, viewers and listeners to custom design what they read, saw and heard, while at the same time undermining the power of intermediaries including publishers and bookstore owners.

To Volokh, these changes were exciting and democratizing. But 22 years later, the picture of what the cheap-speech boom has wrought seems considerably darker. No doubt the Internet has dramatically lowered the costs of obtaining information and spurred the creation and consumption of content from radically diverse sources. Anyone with an idea can now get it out on Facebook, Twitter or any number of other sites accessible to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. And cheap speech has been a boon to those fighting oppressive regimes around the world, as truthful messages and relevant information can spread despite government censorship efforts.

Less positively, cheap speech has undermined mediating and stabilizing institutions of American democracy, including newspapers and political parties, with negative social and political consequences. …

As you might gather, there are things here I agree with and things I disagree with—but Hasen is one of the leading scholars of American election law and thus of speech and politics, and his work is much worth reading. (Note that Hasen's law review article is a draft and may change by the time it's published.)