This article is part of a series titled “Liberalism After Coronavirus.” The purpose of the series is to give different authors an opportunity to explore the future of liberal values through the lens of the pandemic.
Public trust in institutions of all kinds—government, universities, news organizations—has been declining for decades. Many of the reasons are well documented and include concerns about political bias, (exacerbated by deepening polarization across the country), perceptions of declining efficacy, and increasing obsolescence in a changing world.
These explanations tend to focus on the void left by institutions either not performing or not quite up to the vicissitudes of 21st century society. But what is filling the vacuum as legacy institutions retreat? This question is especially acute when it comes to a vital past role for institutions: providing access to authoritative information.
The public and private institutions that arose in democracies over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are the legacy of the Enlightenment. In place of arbitrary power, they derived power from knowledge. Strong institutions were built on expertise and processes that sifted information and, from it, rendered “truth.” Their right to influence us, formally and informally, came from the currency of truth—that judgements are based in fact not caprice.
This is an essential role in complex societies. What makes newspapers or scientific research trustworthy is not that we’re able to verify their pronouncements (although one could), it’s that we don’t have to.
This trust has been earned. In the beginning of the 20th century, journalism and research formalized into a profession. Journalists were trained to adhere to professional standards. The institutions of journalism imposed checks on the gathering and reporting of information. Similarly, research institutions have formalized the collection, management, and dissemination of information, codifying the rigors of the scientific method into credentialing and management.
All of this gathering, reporting, and organizing of information is essential to enabling institutions to present to society the quantum we call truth.
Lately, however, we’ve seen new ways of packaging and disseminating information that have been growing steadily in significance. The first is the rise of partisan media as a content provider. The second is the rise of social media as a content platform. What links them both is their scrupulous disavowal of the responsibilities and even legitimacy of the institutions they are beginning to replace. Not only do partisan media and social media profess not to have the obligations of providing fact-based, trustworthy information, they frequently and explicitly attack the very authoritativeness of legacy institutions.
This is a toxic spiral, and nowhere is it more pronounced than in our now digitally mediated news and information system. If we don’t change the way this system behaves, we will fall into the information equivalent of “stagflation,” which paradoxically joined high inflation with high unemployment. Information stagflation combines the worst of information over-centralization and decentralization.
This is markedly new. While there has long been rancorous debate in America about the role of the government in providing authoritative information, there has been far greater consensus since the founding about the significance of a strong and independent set of private information institutions in securing liberty.
A strong free press and independent universities not only provide an external monitor on public and private institutions, they decentralize the production of knowledge. This has numerous salutary benefits: more diverse perspectives and resulting innovation, affinity for more localized communities, and skepticism of—or at least independence from—a unitary national ideology.
In other words, American liberty is strengthened by having not one or two national papers and leading universities, but a wide range of institutions operating at various levels and in response to diverse constituencies—all unified by the high-minded pursuit of knowledge and fact.
Now we’re seeing two opposing forces come together in ways detrimental to this liberal ideal: the consolidation of passionate audiences under the banner of partisan media, combined with the dissolution of authoritativeness on social media. And the innocent victims are the facts.
There is good evidence that partisan media diets are at least amplifying, if not causing, an approach to considering facts through the lens of ideological belief. Look no further than the COVID-19 pandemic. Knight Foundation’s own polling has found that a partisan news diet is a significant predictor of whether someone believes the media is paying too much or too little attention to the pandemic. Asked about the main sources of misinformation about coronavirus, 2 percent of Democrats point to mainstream news vs. 75 percent of Republicans. Conversely, 85 percent of Democrats say the Trump administration is the leading source of misinformation vs. only 4 percent of Republicans. Other polling shows the same trends.
After a decades-long experiment with cable news and talk radio, this should not surprise us. Not only do these sources tend to intermingle, especially in their “commentary” programming, a clear point of view with a tendentious recitation of the “facts,” they also make an attack on the very idea of the authoritativeness of information a key fixture. The ultimate avatar for this approach is Rush Limbaugh, who has referred to the “four corners of deceit”: universities, science, media, and government. In other words, the institutions entrusted with using method to produce knowledge.
But anti-institutional invective is not the sole province of the right or the left, and it comes together with the second major information institution—social media—in a kind of unholy murder-suicide pact.
We know that social media, and the internet more broadly, have been the leading forces in the destruction of the legacy media business model. This has happened principally by replacing the low-intent advertising model that sustained newspapers with a high-intent, low-marginal cost, high-scale model that combines more effective targeting with massive user networks.
This is not in and of itself morally objectionable, although the consequences of losing local news especially are troubling for our democracy. What is problematic is how social media has defined (or failed to define) its societal role.
First, the intrinsic strength of social media in helping people find each other has been a powerful accelerant for misinformation. Stanford researcher Renée DiResta’s work on the anti-vaccine movement is instructive. Using high-intent tools like targeted advertising, social media has made it easier than ever before for vaccine skeptics to find each other and to gain adherents by more easily identifying those who might be “persuadable” to their worldview.
Second, social media can amplify those seeking to undermine authoritative knowledge. We’ve seen this with COVID-19. Like the coronavirus itself, misinformation can sit inert on the internet waiting for a host. Then, when picked up by influential personalities (often in partisan media), the misinformation starts to replicate and spread. Here the internet acts as a legitimizing megaphone that can circumvent or simply overpower authoritative institutions, which tend to be more cautious as a rule.
Third, social media hesitates to take an editorial stance that would clamp down on misinformation in order to avoid the vexed role as arbiter of truth. This approach makes the mistake, however, of treating all sources of information the same. People might reasonably disagree about whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump make good leaders. People may not reasonably disagree about whether 5G cell towers spread coronavirus (they don’t) or whether colloidal silver will cure the disease (it won’t).
It’s also critical to note that the companies are intrinsically taking an editorial stance because their computational systems decide what is most relevant to their users. That is, their internal choices dictate what users see and what they don’t, and it has a manifest impact on what people come away believing.
Like partisan media, social media companies also love to characterize established institutions as anachronisms. In a speech at Georgetown University last fall, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg celebrated social media as a “Fifth Estate,” free from “traditional gatekeepers in politics or media.” Platforms like Facebook, he said “have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands.” Venture capitalist and modern innovation prophet Marc Andreesen offered a similar sentiment in a recent and much-celebrated essay in which he argues that the failure to innovate our way to a better life is “inertia.” What we need instead, he says, is “investment in new products, in new industries, in new factories, in new science, in big leaps forward.” Everything needs to be new.
This anti-institutionalism—sometimes direct, sometimes subtle—has left us with the worst of all worlds. As polls confirm, it is increasingly hard for people of all generations to know who to rely on. The Wild West of information is truly lawless. Yet the arbiters of information—the social media companies and partisan news purveyors—have unparalleled power to make their own determinations about what people see or do not see—and therefore what functionally counts as the truth.
What we’re left with is a toxic combination. On the one hand, we have experienced a radical decentralization of trust—the feeling that we simply don’t know whom to trust. On the other hand, we’re vulnerable to a radical centralization of truth—the power of a relative few to impose a truth (either by banning or elevating content online) that has not benefited from modern methods of verification.
Legacy institutions aren’t blameless in this. Cable news has become overly reliant on pundit debates. Newspapers have become increasingly focused on the competitive aspects of politics. And mainstream media tends to doggedly cling to the idea that it adheres to what media scholar Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere”—the idea that its reporting is coldly objective. Most Americans are rightly skeptical of this. Universities, too, have allowed themselves to become increasingly politicized and are perceived as bastions of progressive thinking to the exclusion of other perspectives.
The critics are right that we need innovation. But that innovation should help renew and remake institutions for the still-new century.
Traditional media can improve. We’re already seeing positive experiments in ways that mainstream media organizations explain how they’ve reported a story. A welcome addition would be a stronger effort to be more open about the editorial agenda so that audiences can more easily distinguish between accurate reporting embedded in a broader worldview and partisan propaganda that is selling a specific worldview.
Social media can also evolve. Here COVID-19 is beginning show a path forward. Authoritative institutions matter again. There are facts about how the disease spreads and how to stay safe. There are facts about what it will take to reduce infection rates and when we’ll be ready to reopen businesses and schools. Social media companies have been unusually aggressive in their willingness to affirm the facts. In May, Twitter announced an official policy for labeling content that contradicts authoritative public health information, and companies like Facebook and Google have taken similar steps.
The democratization of access to the means of information production, distribution, and consumption is a great thing. It has enabled new voices and new ideas. It has helped those who have been excluded to rise up and be heard. And it has put pressure on complacent incumbents. But the process of sifting knowledge and truth from information and experience is not a democratic process. It requires skill and method.
The goal is to avoid a lawless information environment, where anything can be counted as truth. Nor should there be one new, private arbiter of truth.
Instead, let’s take advantage of the publicly accountable truth arbiters we already have, the ones that we built over generations, the ones that strike the balance between liberty and sound management. Let’s keep what is working, even as we look forward to an exciting if uncertain future.