Internet Lovers! Know Your Enemy: Cass Sunstein
by C.J. Maloney
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)