The Marketplace of Ideas Suffers From A Major Glitch

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“And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”
– John Milton, Areopagitica (1644).


The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson

We have long lived as human beings and governed ourselves as a civil society based on a simple idea. In fact our form of government is based on this premise that with a robust competition of ideas in a free press “marketplace,” something approaching truth would somehow emerge from the muck and win out at the end of the day.

This basic idea is being challenged like never before by the likes of Donald Trump and with the help of cynical propagandists like Steve Bannon of Breitbart News funded by libertarian tech billionaire Robert Mercer and others.


Steve Bannon of Breitbart News speaks on behalf of Judge Roy Moore at Oak Hollow Farm in Fairhope , Alabama, with one week to go in U.S Senate race, Dec. 5, 2017: Photo by Glynn Wilson

This is an incredible irony in the Internet Age, when we seem to have so much information literally at our fingertips on a computer keyboard with access to the web. It’s ironic because the language of a “marketplace of ideas” is at its root a libertarian idea, perhaps unfortunately an idea rooted in capitalism.

If we thought of it instead as an idea from science, that wisdom and truth are evolutionary as well as revolutionary, we would be better off. But let’s deal with the history and the reality first.

We trace the origins of this idea back to English poet and political thinker John Milton in the mid-1600s. But nowhere on the planet was this idea put into practice more than the United States of America, where the founders codified it into a Constitution and subsequent Supreme Court justices affirmed it into our laws beginning with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who wrote: “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

To summarize how this has been written about in the past, the marketplace of ideas is a rationale for freedom of expression based on an analogy to the economic concept of a free market. The marketplace of ideas holds that the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in free, transparent public discourse, and concludes that ideas and ideologies will be culled according to their superiority or inferiority and widespread acceptance among the population. The concept is critical to our understanding of “freedom of the press” and the responsibilities of the media in a so-called “liberal democracy.”

You would think that in the midst of the information explosion we are experiencing in the Age of the Internet, finding the truth would become easier. But this is problematic for a number of reasons. For one, many people are suffering the stress of an information overload. At the same time, almost inexplicably, we also suffer from an information deficit.

Fake news clickbait from all manner of media outlets with Websites, Facebook accounts, apps and Twitter is not really helping. It all seems like too much. The partisan hacks on cable news are not much help either. Unfortunatley, the commentators on what used to be our actual public education network, PBS, are still talking about things as if they expect the Fox News audience to pay attention. That’s exactly why no one is paying attention to PBS anymore.

Why is all this happening? How is it even possible? What can we do about it?

Reliable information is critical to governing a society, especially in an aspiring democratic republic like the United States, where freedom of speech and the press are considered paramount.

In other countries led by authoritarian dictatorships, information is easier to control. In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s government owns the media and can control what it reports and writes. In China, a social media platform such as Facebook can simply be banned if it is considered a threat to the ruling regime. We suspect this is what Trump likes about Putin’s Russia, in addition to his wish to jail or even kill his critics, as I wrote in January when we began this crazy year.

Trump’s Real Fascination With Russia’s Putin: Dictatorial Control of All Branches of Government, the Press and the Power to Jail and Kill Critics

But even here, where people rely on traditional media outlets as well as search engines and social media, you would think there is so much information out there that the good, reliable information would win out. But as we have seen over the past year with the election of Donald Trump as president and the whole “fake news” phenomenon, sometimes the bad information wins out instead.

During the height of the glorious 20th century, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote about it like this.

“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.

“To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care whole-heartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.”

The phrase “marketplace of ideas” first appears in a concurring opinion by Justice William O. Douglas in the Supreme Court decision United States v. Rumely in 1953: “Like the publishers of newspapers, magazines, or books, this publisher bids for the minds of men in the market place of ideas.” The Court’s 1969 decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio enshrined the marketplace of ideas as the dominant public policy in American free speech law.

President Thomas Jefferson argued that it is safe to tolerate “error of opinion … where reason is left free to combat it.”

Fredrick Siebert echoed the idea that free expression is self-correcting in Four Theories of the Press: “Let all with something to say be free to express themselves. The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other.”

But this idea goes back even further than that. The Buddha is quoted as saying: “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

There have been problems with this over the centuries, leading the writer Virginia Woolf to conclude this.

“…if newspapers were written by people whose sole object in writing was to tell the truth about politics and the truth about art we should not believe in war, and we should believe in art.”

Now that’s a sentiment I can agree with.

One of the reasons I am focused on this topic on this last day of the tumultuous year of 2017 is because of a piece that appeared in the New York Times this past week.

How Climate Change Deniers Rise to the Top in Google Searches

This is a good idea for a story, but it just seems way too shallow in the way it’s carried out based on a couple of simple searches and not taking into account what’s going on with net neutrality, or admitting the problem of a newspaper website limiting it’s reach from search engines by a pay wall that further exacerbates the digital divide.

As I was thinking about this and trying to find the quotations I was looking for with Google, I came up with this analogy.

“Trying to find what you are looking for with a search engine like Google these days is like trying to find a fish worth eating in a sea filled with garbage, plastic litter and nuclear waste.”

You can quote me on that.

A commercial marketplace of fake news is not what we had in mind back in the 1990s when we had such high hopes for the internet and publishing on the world wide web.

But that’s where we are.

Climate change due to global warming from the burning of fossil fuels is a good subject to take on to demonstrate the problem we face. The science on this was settled long before Breitbart came along. It’s just that certain Republican politicians have seen fit to use the subject as a political football. Calling climate change a hoax is absurd on the face of it, but it seems to work as a political slogan to certain audiences, namely the uneducated and the anti-government, pro-big business deregulation crowd.

Back in the year 2000, when I was living and teaching in Knoxville, Tennessee, I contacted one of my favorite science writers for the New York Times when he announced his retirement from the paper. His name was William K. Stevens and the next year he published a book titled: The Change in the Weather: People, Weather, and the Science of Climate. I talked to him on the phone and by email and wished him well. I thought this would be the end of the controversy. But it was not to be.

All this confusion should concern the programmers at Google, but it is not clear they can do much about it. Search engines are now at the whim of the capitalists, and those with the most money can buy their way to the top of search results. The same is true of Facebook.

Now that Trump and the Republicans in Congress have destroyed the concept of net neutrality, this problem will only grow worse. And as the online version of newspapers limit their content to those who can pay, the problem grows even worse.

How can we combat any of this?

Somebody has to be willing to publish real news online that remains free to the public without a paywall and without all the popup adversing that people hate. But the only way to overcome the algorithms that favor corporate capitalism is with an army of people manually sharing the links to true information and good journalism, not pushing fake news. Maybe we could call it the Real News Spring or something.

So now go sit down and eat your ham and your black eyed peas, but when you are done, please share this link. We just won an important election in Alabama by working together in this way. But we just barely won it. The demographics should run in our favor into 2018 and 2020 and beyond.

But like this inadequate column in the Washington Post points out, there are no guarantees.

It is going to take a lot of hard work by millions of people to keep us evolving in the right direction, not devolving into a total idiocracy. I wish the programmers would help us in this quest, but so far they just don’t seem capable of understanding this struggle beyond thier zeros and ones. It will be up to us.

© 2017, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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