George Will on Hasen on Volokh on Cheap Speech

New syndicated George Will column:

Volokh anticipated today’s a la carte world of instant, inexpensive electronic distributions of only such content as pleases particular individuals. In 1995, he said that “letting a user configure his own mix of materials” can cause social problems as close-minded people cocoon themselves in a cloud of only congenial information. This exacerbates political polarization by reducing “common knowledge about current events.”

Technologies that radically reduce intermediaries and other barriers to entry into society’s conversation mean that ignorance, incompetence and intellectual sociopathy are no longer barriers. One result is a miasma of distrust of all public speech. Volokh warned about what has come about: odious groups cheaply disseminating their views to thousands of the likeminded. Nevertheless, he stressed the danger of letting “government intervene when it thinks it has found ‘market failure.’”

Now, Richard L. Hasen of the University of California, Irvine, offers a commentary on Volokh, forthcoming in the First Amendment Law Review. Hasen supports campaign-spending regulations whereby government limits the quantity of campaign speech. Given, however, that “in place of media scarcity, we now have a media firehose,” such regulations are of diminished importance. As, Hasen says, using the internet to tap small donors has “a democratizing and equalizing effect.”

But, he correctly says, cheap speech is reducing the relevance of political parties and newspapers as intermediaries between candidates and voters, which empowers demagogues. Voters are directly delivered falsehoods such as the 2016 story of Pope Francis’ endorsement of Donald Trump, which Hasen says “had 960,000 Facebook engagements.” He cites a study reporting approximately three times more pro-Trump than pro-Hillary Clinton fake news stories, with the former having four times more Facebook shares than the latter.

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