Posted by: structureofnews | October 30, 2017


matrixWhat most ails the marketplace of ideas?

Tim Wu knows: Too Much Information.

In a well-argued and smart essay, Tim – a law professor at Columbia University – makes the case that intelligent, truthful, nuanced information is being drowned out by a deluge of noise: Not just the cacophony of the crowd, but increasingly weaponized disinformation, propaganda and troll attacks that exploit new news distribution systems to overwhelm citizens.  And that existing free speech protections, designed to constrain governments from silencing dissenting voices, are grossly unsuited to countering these new threats.

The most important change in the expressive environment can be boiled down to one idea: it is no longer speech itself that is scarce, but the attention of listeners.

It’s not a completely new argument, but he brilliantly synthesizes multiple threads (and threats) facing the industry – fake news, filter bubbles, the rise of platforms, troll armies, lower barriers to publishing – into a stark (and eloquent) framing of the information landscape, and lays out thoughtful ways to think about possible remedies, getting beyond the black-and-white arguments about whether the free market or the government should tackle the problem.

To be sure, the world of journalism, news and news organizations face all sorts of other challenges, not least disintegrating business models that have led to smaller and smaller newsrooms.  But the issue Tim identifies isn’t one of a lack of quality content; it’s about how it gets to people and how well they can process it.

(As a digression – that’s not to say there aren’t problems with good journalism being practiced and how much quality content is being produced.  Including, as I’ve discussed before, how some audiences are being ill-served (or ignored) by the quality press. And doing better on some of these fronts might alleviate the problems Tim identifies – but only at the margins.)

The gist of his argument is that the idealized marketplace of ideas – where a limited number of players debate issues of importance to help citizens form informed opinions – has collapsed under the weight of a new flood of ideas and opinions, an (ad-driven) industry dedicated to capturing people’s attention, and filter bubbles that restrict the ideas people are exposed to.  Add to that active efforts to create and distribute misinformation and propaganda, and the mobilization of troll armies to drown out and intimidate legitimate voices, and it’s clear why reasoned discourse is on life support.

As he notes in a discussion of why the U.S. First Amendment is increasingly irrelevant to the new news landscape:

Consider three main assumptions that the law grew up with. The first is an underlying premise of informational scarcity. For years, it was taken for granted that few people would be willing to invest in speaking publicly. Relatedly, it was assumed that with respect to any given issue — say, the war — only a limited number of important speakers could compete in the “marketplace of ideas.” The second notable assumption arises from the first: listeners are assumed not to be overwhelmed with information, but rather to have abundant time and interest to be influenced by publicly presented views. Finally, the government is assumed to be the main threat to the “marketplace of ideas” through its use of criminal law or other coercive instruments to target speakers (as opposed to listeners) with punishment or bans on publication. Without government intervention, this assumption goes, the marketplace of ideas operates well by itself.

Each of these assumptions has, one way or another, become obsolete in the twenty-first century, due to the rise in importance of attention markets and changes in communications technologies.

So what’s to be done?

One, fairly absolutist view, is that the marketplace of ideas isn’t really broken: That good journalism will eventually drown out bad information.  As Anya Schiffrin noted in a Columbia Journalism Review piece on how Europe is trying to tackle the issue, US commentators seem wary of too much intervention:

In the US, panels dedicated to these issues often end with media experts saying they don’t want government censorship or social media companies like Facebook to be responsible for corporate censorship. But if the government shouldn’t act, and private companies shouldn’t act, who is supposed to fix the problem?

And, in any case, as Tim’s analysis notes, the problem isn’t with a lack of good journalism – it’s how people are engaging with it (and everything else being pushed their way.)

Nor is it really plausible for news organizations to solve the problem – they don’t have the power, resources, expertise or bandwidth to deal with what is really a much broader societal issue.

(To digress with (yet another!) restaurant analogy:  Running a successful eatery requires more than just the ability to cook well – there’s making sure there’s adherence to safety standards, creating a nice ambience, ensuring good service, understanding marketing, and so on.  But at some point the skill sets needed are stretched too thin for any single organization to manage well – if, say, the restaurant also had to ensure the street in front of it was kept clean and well-lit, and it have to organize an entire delivery system for their food to get around the city.  It’s just not realistic for one group to do that many disparate functions effectively.  Similarly, news organizations need to do more than do good journalism (cook well); they have to reach audiences, build engagement, manage subscriptions, and so one.  But fixing the whole news ecosystem and the marketplace of ideas?  That’s a bridge too far.

As I noted in an earlier piece:

That’s a seismic shift in how news gets to people. And it’s not really reasonable to expect that any journalist – or any news organization to change that dynamic by themselves.

Which is another way of saying: We need more people to focus on the public policy issue of news distribution, over and above the people who are already focusing on the art and craft and quality of journalism. And they don’t have to be the same people.)

OK, so if all those ideas don’t work, what might?

More government regulation of platforms and the kinds of information that gets disseminated?  Perhaps, although it needs to be done with a fine touch.  There are any number of well-meaning but potentially draconian rules on the books – the European General Data Protection Regulation, which is due to start being enforced next May, comes to mind.

Could we engage more with the key platforms – Facebook, Twitter, etc – to build better systems and offer more transparency?  That’s a good half-way step, at least, and could lead to some improvement.  As Tim  notes perceptively:

That old debate also revealed that design can mitigate some of these concerns. For example, consider that Wikipedia does not have a widespread fake news problem.

But leaving it entirely up to the platforms raises its own set of questions, given how central they are to public discourse, all around the world.  Anya flags some of these in her CJR piece:

“There is more and more pressure on companies to do the job of public authorities,” says Maryant Fernández Pérez, senior policy advisor with the European Digital Rights Forum in Brussels. “We are afraid of privatized censorship.”

Tim Wu offers up some other suggestions:

  • Extensive enforcement of existing federal or state anti-cyberstalking laws to protect journalists or other speakers from individual abuse;
  • The introduction of anti-trolling laws designed to better combat the specific problem of “troll army”-style attacks on journalists or other public figures;
  • New statutory or regulatory restrictions on the ability of major media and Internet speech platforms to knowingly accept money from foreign governments attempting to influence American elections; and
  • New laws or regulations requiring that major speech platforms behave as public trustees, with general duties to police fake users, remove propaganda robots, and promote a robust speech environment surrounding matters of public concern.

None of these is a silver bullet – nor would they be easy to implement or enact.  But the first step to solving a problem is recognizing what it is.  And for too long we, as a profession, have been too focused on the issue of fewer journalists and journalism, even as we (rightly) celebrated the democratization of publishing and the empowering of once-marginalized voices.  Or chastising ourselves for not covering key groups of people well, rather than thinking more about how to serve them better.

And now, as Tim has laid out clearly, we need to work much more to figure out how to restore a functioning marketplace of ideas.  It’ll take a lot of work, as Tim notes:

What might be done in response is a question without an easy answer. One possibility is simply to concede that the First Amendment, built in another era, is not suited to today’s challenges. Instead, any answer must lie in the development of better social norms, adoption of journalistic ethics by private speech platforms, or action by the political branches.

We should get started soon.

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