In 1822, James Madison wrote that “a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy or perhaps both.” Operating in a much simpler world, Madison and the other architects of American democracy did a brilliant job in developing a constitutional model that guarantees a free press and supports accountable government-essential elements to the provision of “popular information.”
Nearly two centuries later, in the age of the Internet, we can instantly gain access to boundless amounts of information. It’s easy to obtain, affordable and widely accessible. And yet on some level, we are struggling, perhaps as never before, to meet Madison’s standard of guaranteeing “popular information.” At least three factors account for our struggles.
The first is the rapid demise of the newspaper industry. Just this week, the New York Daily News, once the nation’s largest newspaper with more than 2 million subscribers, cut its news staff in half, another casualty of declining newspaper advertising dollars and a rapidly declining base of users willing to put down a dollar to get the news. Without professional journalists, held to the highest standards and dedicated to ferreting out the truth, our democracy suffers. As citizens, we find that it becomes far more difficult to get reliable information from which to make informed choices.
The second factor is the deep political and cultural polarization in our society, which is fueled by competing narratives of what is true. The Internet, of course, exacerbates this problem, leading us into what has been called “filter bubbles,” where readers seek information that supports their political predilections. Though we have endured deep political divisions throughout our history, there is little doubt that news consumed via filter bubbles on social media and partisan websites have sharpened and exaggerated these divides.
The third and perhaps least understood factor in our struggle to obtain “popular information” is the presence of sinister forces, including the Russian government, that are determined to undermine our democracy by promoting political disinformation online. Earlier this week, the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights published a detailed account of Russian government efforts entitled, “Combatting Russian Disinformation: The Case for Stepping Up the Fight Online.” It shows how the Russian government has become the most prolific producer of disinformation designed to manipulate Internet platforms to magnify our differences. This is now a daily occurrence that goes well beyond the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
As the NYU Stern report makes clear, “Russian-linked trolls and bot accounts are now active on a continual basis in the U.S. and Europe, attempting to intensify conflict over subjects ranging from American school shootings to the cohesiveness of the European Union." Western democracies have been slow to respond to this problem or to recognize the extent to which Russian interference online is an existential threat to our democracies. When they have responded, the first instinct of some governments is to regulate content. A newly proposed French law on false information, now being debated in the French Parliament, goes down this path. Such government laws or regulations pose an immediate threat to the core right of free speech. But as the Stern report points out, governments can do much more, both in coordinating intelligence-gathering and analyzing such external threats to inform government diplomacy and policymaking. They can also undertake much more ambitious public education efforts aimed at encouraging greater critical thinking by Internet users.
There is also an important role for the leading Internet platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter. While they have taken some positive steps and are working to build the next generation of technology capable of combating some forms of disinformation online, they must do more. They need to deploy more human beings to address these challenges, including teams dedicated to Russian disinformation and staffed with experts on Russian language, culture and Internet practices. They need to deploy their algorithms to de-rank or block political disinformation, especially when it is coming from hostile foreign states. More broadly, they need to acknowledge that while they are not editors in a traditional news sense, nor are they simply technicians running pipes. They are somewhere in-between. These companies need to develop public policy teams internally to make the tough choices when the material is not strictly illegal, but is deliberately dishonest and threatens to undermine our democratic system. The advertising models of these companies, which reward emotionally evocative content, seem to be exacerbating the problem and also need to be revisited with these challenges in mind.
We are living in a world where a range of new technologies are both providing unparalleled opportunities to improve our lives, but are at the same time creating new challenges that we are just beginning to appreciate. Whether in the area of artificial intelligence, robotics or news dissemination on the Internet, the challenge we face is how to govern these new technologies and set the proper balance between government regulation and corporate self-governance. The future of our democratic societies will depend on how well we navigate this terrain.