Truth is the foundation on which the power of the press stands and falls, and our only demand of the press, also the foreign press, is that they report the truth about Germany.
~ Otto Dietrich, Reich Press Chief, 1934
Democracy is under assault! To the bulwarks! Quick, load the catapult with our freedom of speech and shoot it over at the enemy; it's our only hope! So says Harvard professor Cass Sunstein in his On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done. More an 88-page gab session than a structured book, On Rumors makes me wonder if this is how Professor Sunstein sounds at the chalkboard…placid, scattershot and above all, repetitive. The villain of his piece is the Internet — a fertile breeding ground for "false" rumors — and his knight in shining armor the government censor.
The book starts off with, ends, and endlessly repeats a trumpet blast sure to grab the modern American ear — democracy is in peril. (Sunstein, 3, 10, 65, 85, etc.) The culprit? Free speech – a protective shield for the "false" rumors so hated by the author, all running amok and unfettered via the Internet highway, a regulatory void with no political infringements whatsoever. The Internet is, to the author, a dagger pointed at the very heart of democracy.
Sunstein puts forth two goals of his effort. First, to study how and why rumors spread, where he attempts to use social cascades and group polarization to paint the obvious with an intellectual varnish, a collegiate effort to erect something as earthy as "telegraph, telephone, tell a friend" into a three-month long lecture that costs $17,000 to hear at Harvard.
His second goal is the book's main course – and the part of most interest to those in power itching for any excuse to regulate the Internet — where he grants some helpful suggestions as to "what we can do to protect ourselves against the harmful effects of false rumors." (Sunstein, 4-5) His answer? Not censorship (heavens, no!) but the imposition of a "chilling effect" on such rumors; just the "false" ones, mind you.
Sunstein insists this is necessary as "False rumors…can threaten careers, policies, public officials, and sometimes even democracy itself." (Sunstein, 3) Of course, no warning would be complete for post-9-11 America without pointing out how the Internet is "crucial in the process of radicalization." (Sunstein, 41) He plays to the reader's self-interest, as "rumors can harm the economy" (Sunstein, 3) and "fuel speculative bubbles, greatly inflating prices" (Sunstein, 8) as well as his self-conceit, since "all of us are potential victims of rumors, including false and vicious ones." (Sunstein, 3)
A large concern of the author is the protection of the political elite, since with the spread of "false" rumors "people might lose faith…in their government itself." (Sunstein, 10) Though he warns that "many rumors spread conspiracy theories" (Sunstein, 7) I'd advise him to read a copy of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by his fellow Harvard professor Bernard Bailyn, who helpfully points out that our Founders were rabid "conspiracy theorists" and, even more to the point, urge Sunstein to look at history and the innumerable times when "conspiracy" theories proved themselves to be absolutely true.
For all his learned sounding discourse, Sunstein freely admits he has no idea what exactly a rumor is, as "there is no settled definition of rumors, and I will not attempt to offer one here." (Sunstein, 5) He has the mind of your standard American activist, her "progressives," always on the look out for a social ill to cure via the application of political power. All he needs, in this case, is to assault the freedom of speech so he may stop something he can't quite define but knows for certain is there.
The Censorship That Dares Not Speak Its Name
These points should not be taken as a plea for any kind of censorship…
~ Cass Sunstein, On Rumors, 2009
Most grating on the reader's ear (and insulting to his intelligence) is Sunstein's habit of softening every statement in an attempt to appear thoughtful and levelheaded about what he is proposing. This leads him to write in the same manner as an insecure teenage girl speaks, every sentence reads as if it should end with a question mark, as when "(the problem) seems to be increasing" (Sunstein, 10) and "rumors are nearly as old as human history." (Sunstein, 3) Eventually his constant use of softeners make him appear not reasonable, but weak-kneed. This book lacks the courage of the author's convictions.
Even his outright call for censorship arrives on stage with a timid limp — Sunstein is loath to come out and say what he means. He claims that "while old style censorship is out of the question" (Sunstein, 12) and "a chilling effect can be exceedingly harmful…let's be careful about undue emphasis on the underlying risk…we should be able to agree that on occasion, the chilling effect is a very good thing." (Sunstein, 72) As always with Sunstein, it comes back to the Internet. "It is not obvious that the current regulatory system for free speech — the current setting of chill — is the one that we would or should choose for the Internet Era." (Sunstein, 78)
From back to the land crazes to imperialist designs on foreign lands to the atomic bomb, much bloodshed, misery, and inhumanity have flowed from America's university system. Still I submit there is neither reason nor right to censure our universities and their free flow of ideas because much greatness, too, has come out of them. To obtain the good, we must put up with the bad. And, I suggest to Professor Sunstein, the Internet deserves the same consideration.
In this book's most pertinent passage (for its author) Sunstein writes "Over the course of our lives, it is nearly inevitable that all of us will make or have made statements…that will seem to some members of the public a kind of smoking gun — proof of poor judgment." (Sunstein, 64) On Rumors is indeed that, 88 pages of irrefutable proof of Sunstein's exceptionally shoddy logic, intellectual arrogance and child-like trust in power.
For but one example of that last, while he points out (correctly) that "we lack direct or personal knowledge about the facts that underlie most of our judgments" (Sunstein, 5) he exempts whatever political gatekeepers he'd empower to enforce his "chilling" of "false" rumors from this shortcoming. Sunstein assumes that those in power will not only know what is true or false, but will use their power to "chill" what they claim to be false in a completely honest, benevolent manner. He has a trust in power, a trust in the political class, which neither human nature nor recorded history allows to any rational man.
It is best we remember J.S. Mill's take on freedom of speech when he warned "the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course, deny its truth; but they are not infallible." (Mill, 16)
And neither is Cass Sunstein; and On Rumors, a poorly written, blatant assault on our freedom of speech, proves my point.
Mill, J.S. On Liberty. (Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., Indianapolis, IN, 1978)
Sunstein, Cass R. On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done. (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, New York, 2009)
CJ Maloney [send him mail] lives and works in New York City. All opinions expressed are his alone. He blogs for Liberty & Power on the History News Network website and the DailyKos. His first book Back to the Land (Arthurdale, FDR's New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning) is to be released by John Wiley and Sons in March 2011.