Remember when the only source of political speech and information were major media conglomerates with tons of important journalists who received prestigious prizes? Speech was serious, as they wore serious faces as they told it to us. Speech was moderated, as there was no one on air to call bullshit, or would dare use such a vulgar word in such a refined world. And speech was credible, because we were told to believe these people. After all, if they weren’t credible, they wouldn’t be given major media soapboxes to inform us of reality.
The rise of what we might call “cheap speech” has, however, 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.
He contrasts an old law journal article by none other than Eugene Volokh, predicting the democratization of speech.
In 1995, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh wrote a remarkably prescient 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.
Too bad, Hasen concludes, that the one thing that didn’t work out was “cheap speech.”
Less positively, cheap speech has undermined mediating and stabilizing institutions of American democracy, including newspapers and political parties, with negative social and political consequences.
Some people adore freedom, with all its ugliness and nastiness. Some adore order, with its “mediating and stabilizing” effect on the awfulness of the groundlings, left to their own devices. Sure, you can call it authoritarian, but the trains ran on time.
Hasen rejects the obvious solution of giving government the power to regulate free speech, but only because the current regime would obviously abuse it. That’s not to say he wouldn’t appreciate a bit more regulation of the First Amendment to rid public discourse of immoderate speech, the sort of tonal meanness that academics so deeply despise, as it scares the effete and elite when they aren’t at the top of the serious speech food chain.
Cheap speech allows people to circumvent the institutions that enforce order on political thought.
Cheap speech is also hastening the irrelevancy of political parties by facilitating direct communication between politicians and voters. Social media, for instance, provided Trump a vehicle to get around the GOP in launching his unorthodox campaign. Now that he’s president, social media allows him to circumvent not only the media but also his staff as he lies to the public.
There was a time when the president was right up there with the serious speech that dead-tree newspapers repeated on the front page, but that was before the new guy who lies to the public. So instead of political parties telling voters what they should care about, voters can decide for themselves. Of course, without the party bosses to inform them, they get it all wrong.
Social media can help activists overcome collective action problems — to identify fellow travelers and stage peaceful protests, or violent and hateful ones. It should have come as no surprise that the organizers of the Charlottesville rally promoted it heavily on social media and then used the fallout to look for more recruits.
The violent and hateful Naxos took advantage of the cheap cesspool of social media. The peaceful fellow-travelers flew in organically on gossamer wings, weighed down only by their urine bottles.
What can be done?
Having concluded that the ignorant masses can’t be left to their own devices without the truth-mediating influences of trusted sources, Hasen contends it’s time for a change.
Still, in the era of cheap speech, some shifts in 1st Amendment doctrine seem desirable to assist citizens in ascertaining the truth. The courts should not stand in the way of possible future laws aimed at requiring social media sites to identify and police false political advertising, for instance.
The days of getting one’s news from the New York Times and Walter Cronkite are over. We find out what happened, and what we think about it, from our dear friends on the Facebook or the Twitters, maybe a Snapchat or two. To the extent we look to others to explain the nuggets they deem us worthy of learning, new-media sources like Axios reduce it to a paragraph of “story” and a paragraph of “splainer” so we never have to think too hard and can move on promptly, knowing whom to love and hate.
Ultimately, nongovernmental actors may be best suited to counter the problems created by cheap speech. Tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter can assist audiences in ferreting out the truth.
We can surely trust “nongovernmental actors,” whom some might call CEOs of for-profit business that trade off our personal information gleaned from our internet habits to sell us trinkets, to decide what speech is worthy and what is too cheap. After all, if Zuck says a story is real, who are we to doubt it? In practice, of course, it will be managed by algorithms which are never wrong, or youthful and enthusiastic watchers who have refined their sensibilities in the nation’s finest institutions of higher education.
And order will return so academics can sleep well knowing that the elites are back in charge and will protect us from the horrors of cheap speech.