Nate Persily of Stanford Law is emerging as the leading authority on the effect of the internet and social media on political campaigns. His recent article in the Journal of Democracy displays Persily’s strengths: deep research, clarity of exposition and a grasp of what is significant in the messy world of facts. He is unmistakably alarmed: indeed, in interviews, he has said so. Persily fears that a ruthless marriage of technology to “fake news” can destroy the prospects for responsible democratic deliberation. Where does this discussion of fake news go from here, and what are the pitfalls? Professor Persily notes that the dominant Internet platforms are moving toward policies to help readers locate the bona fide news items. Facebook now works with traditional media organizations and fact-checking enterprises to “flag” dubious stories.
Some readers will accept this role, as a responsible exercise of power, while others will see it as an expansion of great market power. Or, in Persily’s words:
[Market] power far in excess of that which legacy media institutions had in their heyday, let alone today. Especially in an environment in which the regulated speech—whether hate speech, fake news, or otherwise—tends to predominate on one side of the political spectrum, they cannot escape the charge that their new rules are biased either in intent or in effect.
Persily makes clear that the issues are complex but he sees large questions of policy to which answers are required if we are to have “integrity” of information on which democratic debate depends.