Does Misinformation in the Media Threaten American Democracy?

IHS recently convened a group of graduate students and junior faculty whose research focuses on freedom of speech and the press to examine the philosophical arguments and historical context behind today’s concerns about misinformation in the media and its relation to democracy. 

Keith Bybee, a professor of law at Syracuse University, and Laura Jenkins, a PhD student working closely with Bybee, conceptualized this convening, viewing it in part as an opportunity to offer an alternative assessment of misinformation in the media. 

In an article this group discussed, they argue that we tend to view misinformation in the media as a threat to democracy, because, like John Stuart Mill, we believe the purpose of press freedom is to facilitate intellectual competition, a process by which the best ideas are sorted out from the worst. Misinformation defined as “false information deliberately intended to deceive” defeats that purpose, leading to badly informed citizens ill-prepared to make democratic choices. 

Reports of rampant misinformation in the media dishearten those who love democracy and might be a cause for despair if not for the intriguing alternative Bybee and Jenkins offer. What if the purpose of press freedom were to enable like-minded others to find each other and participate in collective projects, thereby overcoming the anonymity and atomism that tend to characterize liberal democratic societies? 

Keith Bybee
Keith Bybee
Laura Jenkins
Laura Jenkins

This hypothesis stems from the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who famously visited the United States in 1831-1832, a visit that culminated in his influential two-volume account of American society, Democracy in America

Mill’s insights into free expression are always the first to spring to mind on the questions of… free press and truth in print, and Tocqueville never enters the conversation.

-Keith Bybee and Laura Jenkins, Syracuse University

Participants seemed to agree that Tocqueville’s seldom-discussed perspective on press freedom deserves serious consideration as we in the modern era assess the problem of misinformation in the media and work towards appropriate responses. 

This online discussion colloquium explored John Milton and the origins of the free press, Tocqueville and the partisan press, Mill and the current freedom of the press, and the rise of misinformation in today’s media. Participants noted with approval the group’s disciplinary diversity. Bybee remarked that he left the colloquium “even more committed than I was before to the idea that current questions of misinformation must be addressed from a variety of disciplinary and intellectual perspectives. We can’t solve the problems of free speech and free press without diverse scholars collaboratively engaging in free inquiry.”

Alexis de Tocqueville

The intellectual rigor of the discussion was also widely noted and praised. This was a “deeply engaging and intellectually rigorous discussion on misinformation, censorship and free speech”, observed Simba Runyowa, a graduate student in public policy at the University of Chicago. “I came away questioning my baseline perspectives and wanting to do more reading and research on the topic.” 

But for those concerned that misinformation poses a serious threat to democracy, perhaps the most promising features of this discussion colloquium were the scholars’ plans for further study in this area. 

“The notes I took during our discussions will be indispensable within my future research”, wrote Jeffrey Giliam, a graduate student in economics at George Mason University. Nathan Carrington, a graduate student in political science at Syracuse University, came away feeling the seminar would “undoubtedly shape my path forward as I continue to grapple with these topics in my academic career.” 

Participants said their research plans would likely focus on topics such as the market for fake followers on social media, psychological factors undergirding the use of press freedom as a means of identity formation, and relations between freedom of the press and religion. 
For more information on IHS programs including discussion colloquia, or funding opportunities, visit TheIHS.org.

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