A lunatic will be president of the United States in a few weeks. Soon, a privileged, insulated, pussy-grabbing, monosyllabic, megalomaniacal reality-television star, who instigates fights on Twitter and cannot form complete sentences, will be the leader of what was arguably the most powerful nation on Earth. His election underscores how social media has led to the failure of the theory of the marketplace of ideas, which holds that the most valuable ideas float to the top for us to adopt and those of the least value fall away organically. With the advent of fake-news and the garbage strewn across social media, the viability of theory is questionable, at best.
There is much ignorance about what power President-elect Trump, this white, wealthy, property-owning man, familiar with bankruptcy who has “the best words,” will actually have in office, and much speculation about how much damage he can do. One thing is clear: The Revolution will not be televised. It will occur on social media, which we all had hoped would be the modern-day marketplace of choice for the exchange of ideas. Now, anybody with Wi-Fi can partake in what we know as the marketplace of ideas, where people share thoughts, opinions and theories, and the best among them form majority rule. The question is: Did the marketplace, designed by wealthy white men ever really work for ideas other than theirs? Or have movements including Black Lives Matter, and continued efforts for LGBTQ and women’s equality, given it a new dimension that we have not yet figured out how to harness and refine?
Kurt Metzmeier, associate director law library at UofL, said the truth is the marketplace of yore never gave voice to the people, even if it was an accurate summary of the majority. “Marketplace of ideas always was a problematic metaphor. It always privileged people who as Mark Twain said ‘bought ink by the barrels’ — wealthy men like Randolph Hearst — whom Orson Wells skewered in ‘Citizen Kane’ — who could monopolize the market with newspapers on both coasts … It is tempting to say that the era of fake news proves the market is helpless in bankrupting bad ideas… ”
If bad ideas and fake-news are the price Americans pay for all of its people to participate in their free exchange, then isn’t that what the Bill of Rights guarantees? But what happens when many of the thoughts have no rational underpinnings, the opinions are designed to foment hate and separation and the theories have no facts to support them?
A nation divided.
But we were divided prior to Trump, weren’t we? So he is not a product of our division as much as he is the ultimate illustration of it. The great equalizer that is social media in its indiscriminate voice-giving, has magnified our extremes, while minimizing values upon which many of both political persuasions agree. It is to our benefit and detriment. To include all of our voices in “we the people” without undoing the compact that is our nation, has proven incredibly challenging to our democracy, yet is absolutely fundamental to our future. The trick is to not fall on the sword the First Amendment provides to express ourselves, while maintaining the ability to shield ourselves from ideas that are patently false, arguably harmful and lack any value in our marketplace of thoughts. This tension is far from new. The difference is that when Paul Robert Cohen wore his “Fuck the Draft” jacket into a Los Angeles courthouse in 1968, onlookers didn’t have the means to share it, triggering its viral nature, internet death threats, memes that praised his courage and stories by “news sources” generated by anyone, anywhere with some “facts” about Cohen.
I would never pretend to have the answer for how to balance unfettered and immediate expression and criticism of our leaders against potentially dangerous, widespread, entirely fabricated fake news. What I know is that this is not the first time Americans have divided over our future. But now the rift is projected at us in nanoseconds, with little to no context. How to regulate that? And who would you trust for the job? If we are to remain autonomous, we have to trust each other as frightening as that prospect seems.
Happy New Year!