The rise of anonymous speech facilitated by the information revolution, particularly on social media, increases the opportunities for foreign interference to influence American electoral choices, as we saw with Russian efforts in the 2016 and 2020 elections. Domestic copycats have followed suit: In the 2017 Doug Jones-Roy Moore US Senate race in Alabama, Mr. Jones’s supporters — acting without his knowledge — posed on social media as Russian bots and Baptist alcohol abolitionists supporting Roy Moore in an effort to depress moderate Republican support for Mr. Moore. Mr. Jones, a Democrat, narrowly won that election, though we cannot say that the disinformation campaign swung the result.
The cheap speech environment increases polarization and the risk of demagogy by individual candidates. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who before entering Congress embraced dangerous QAnon conspiracy theories and supported the execution of Democratic politicians, need not depend upon party leaders for funding; by being outrageous, she can go right to social media to cheaply raise funds for her campaigns and her political activities.
We now live in an era of high partisanship but weak political parties, which can no longer serve as the moderating influence on extremists within their ranks. Cheap speech accelerates this trend.
We cannot — and would not want to — go back to a time when media gatekeepers deprived voters of valuable information. Cheap speech helped fuel Black Lives Matter protests and the racial justice movement both before and after the murder of George Floyd, and virally spread videos of police misconduct can help catalyze meaningful change. But the cheap speech era requires new legal tools to shore up our democracy.
Among the legal changes that could help are an updating of campaign finance laws to cover what is now mostly unregulated political advertising spread over the internet, labeling deep fakes as “altered” to help voters separate fact from fiction and a tightening of the ban on foreign campaign expenditures. Congress should also make it a crime to lie about when, where and how people vote. A Trump supporter has been charged with targeting voters in 2016 with false messages suggesting that they could vote by text or social media post, but it is not clear if existing law makes such conduct illegal. We also need new laws aimed at limiting microtargeting, the use by campaigns or interest groups of intrusive data collected by social media companies to send political ads, including some misleading ones, sometimes to vulnerable populations.
Unfortunately, the current Supreme Court would very likely view many of these proposed legal changes as violating the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees. Much of the court’s jurisprudence depends upon faith in an outmoded “marketplace of ideas” metaphor, which assumes that the truth will emerge through counterspeech. If that was ever true in the past, it is not true in the cheap speech era. Today, the clearest danger to American democracy is not government censorship but the loss of voter confidence and competence that arises from the sea of disinformation and vitriol.