Oct 2 2009

On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done by Cass R. Sunstein

Jessica Loudis

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In June, Cass R. Sunstein’s confirmation as Barack Obama’s nominee for regulatory czar was hindered by Georgia senator Saxby Chambliss, who told online congressional newspaper The Hill, “[Sunstein] has said that animals ought to have the right to sue folks.” Chambliss was apparently referring to Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, a book Sunstein edited in 2004, in which he argued that private citizens should be able to defend animals in court. However, when Chambliss’s statement was posted, Sunstein’s nuanced legal thinking was subject to distortion by bloggers and commentators, many of whom took his argument to illogical extremes.

This type of misinformation is a good example of what Sunstein finds problematic about the Internet. In his new book, On Rumors, Sunstein tackles the insidious effect of rumors on “democratic discourse” in our brave new cyberworld. He has written extensively about Internet libel—notably in 2007’s Republic.com 2.0—and has pioneered a field of study around it, merging the disciplines of law and behavioral economics. It is ironic, then, that Sunstein’s confirmation hinged on whether people believed he thought bonobos should take the stand.

Sunstein contends that rumors threaten democracy by undermining public confidence in government. Moreover, he argues, libel and misinformation can now spread at an unprecedented speed, with no way to keep its authors in check. Sunstein makes his case by focusing on two major consequences of transmitting information online: First, it creates a cascade effect, meaning that people are more likely to believe something if their peers do; second, it polarizes people into isolated groups, a trend that leads to ideological extremism (or, at the very least, to parroting Rachel Maddow). As a result, Sunstein claims that Internet news sources create “an architecture of control by which each of us can select a free-speech package that suits our interests.” From this vantage point, the news we read becomes hyperspecialized, and we become alienated from shared democratic experience.

The crux of Sunstein’s argument is that the Internet has become fundamentally antidemocratic—though it is a public sphere—because it allows us to filter out content we disagree with and to personalize information to an unprecedented degree. Consequently, the Internet works poorly as a marketplace of ideas, ghettoizing users along the lines of personal preference. Furthermore, without real oversight or a civic code, truth and falsehood are allowed to exist in equal measure. “Even if the rumors are baseless,” Sunstein writes, “the very fact that questions are being asked . . . will assure a victory for the propagator.” To govern this arena, Sunstein advocates regulatory measures that create a “chilling effect”—in short, mandatory fines for spreading misinformation. A failure to regulate the Internet, he warns, could risk a “dystopian future in which propagators . . . are rewarded . . . for spreading false rumors and showing no concern for the question of truth.”

But identifying rumors may not be as easy as Sunstein makes it out to be. There is a thin line between rumor and opinion; as the recent hysteria over health care reform demonstrates, statements that originated as overheated rhetoric are reported as “news” by the mainstream media. Moreover, if Sunstein plans to level fines on those spreading misinformation, he’ll have to prove “actual malice”—a particularly nebulous legal category—if the government ends up in court. Considering the difficulties surrounding fines (and the fact that rumors, like cockroaches, will likely never become extinct) Sunstein’s approach may be difficult.

But even as Sunstein warns of a coming dystopia, his vision of the Internet isn’t as bleak as it sounds. He believes we’re at a critical moment: We can either accept the perils of a lawless Web or choose a future in which “those who spread false rumors are categorized as such, discounted, and marginalized.” The difference, he argues, depends less on the legal realm than on developing a new code of online social norms. It may not be possible to prevent people from believing misinformation, Sunstein concedes, but until we actively discourage rumors from spreading, the Internet will never be able to live up to its true democratic potential.

Jessica Loudis is a Brooklyn-based writer who works at Slate and is an associate editor at Conjunctions.

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