Can Democracy Survive the Internet with Nate Persily

Can Democracy Survive the Internet with Nate Persily


I often say that you can tell when I’m
a law professor because I have opinions without data
>>[LAUGH]>>You can tell when I’m a political scientist because I have
data without opinions, And you can tell when I’m
being a lawyer because well, it depends on what my
client tells me to say. So you can decide which role I’m playing
at different points in this talk. But if you come to my class, you attend my class here at
Stanford on the First Amendment, one of the first concepts you’ll learn
about is the marketplace of ideas, right? It’s that age-old concept, starting
maybe with John Stuart Mill, extending through an opinion by Justice Oliver
Wendell Holmes in a Supreme Court opinion. And the idea, of course, is that if
we just have more speech, right? In a competitive open marketplace, the more likely that the truth
is gonna win out, right? It’s a core concept in thinking about
American constitutional law and the First Amendment. Now, it’s not clear that was ever true. But it’s certainly not true
in the information and technological age that we live in now,
right? It’s not the case that the more
speech that we see out there, the more likely that the truth
is going to win out. And we see this not just in
the United States, but around the world. But the question that I wanna sort of pose
to you and try to begin to answer here is what is it about the technological
affordances of the Internet? The new digital communication ecosystem
that poses a unique stress on democracy, all right? And so the question is not, well,
how do we combat fake news? Or how do we combat hate speech? Fake news is as old as news,
hate speech is as old as speech. The question is, what it is about the technology itself
that poses a stress on democracy? And so there’s several
families of concerns that pose a stress to democracy when
it comes to the digital age. The first is how the new communication
ecosystem privileges velocity, virality, and volume. That is the speed at which we talk and
receive information. The fact that it’s through
viral peer to peer transfer. And the sheer amount of information
that we have on our cellphones in our pockets, right? So the first point on the velocity of
information in the technological age we live in. So you may have heard this quote, right? A lie makes its way half way around the
world before the truth puts its boots on. Have you heard that idea? If you look on the Internet right now, you’ll see it’s attributed
to Mark Twain and 1917. It turns out Mark Twain was dead in 1917.>>[LAUGH]
>>So it’s a little bit sort of fake news about fake news. But the still the point still holds,
right? Which is that a lie becomes increasingly
difficult to combat in this new technological ecosystem regarding
information that we live in. Because once it’s out there, and
once it’s made its way around the world on the different platforms,
it’s incredibly difficult to combat. Now, that is democracy relevant, right? Because elections occur at
a particular point in time, right? And so a well placed lie in the run up
to an election is becoming increasingly difficult to combat. That’s because the communication
infrastructure, right? Privileges vitality, as opposed to
having referees that determine what kind of information flows to consumers. Now, that is a great beauty and
in some ways democratic character of the Internet that we’ve removed
the legacy media intermediaries, right? Who had become referees as to what kind
of information you could receive, right? The Internet gives everyone
a megaphone to talk to the world. But what a political system that is based on virality privileges is appeals
to emotion and outrage, right? We as political scientists know that
the kinds of communication strategies and candidacies that succeed in
an environment of virality, right? Which where virality is privileged,
are those that appeal to emotion. Now, I guess, it’s mostly outrage. Outrage is something that we can, really
sort of be triggered by on the Internet to some extent it’s feelings of love. That’s why you have cat videos
in your news feed, right? But the question then is will wait for it. Again, thinking about the democracy
endangering threats to the Internet. What is it about vitality and the time
of communications and candidacies and strategies that then
are privileged under that system? And finally, as I said,
volume, we simply have so much information that we
have at our fingertips. And because, like I said, we carry it
around in our pockets on our cellphones, this requires some kind of curation, some kind of organization
by some kind of authority. And so the decisions that are made by the
platforms become increasingly important. Second sort of not unique
feature of the Internet but something that’s accelerated by
the Internet is the power that anonymous speakers have in
the information environment. Now, if you take my First Amendment class,
right? And you learn that anonymity is actually
constitutionally protected, right? Here in the United States, you have a constant First Amendment
right to speak anonymously, right? And around the world,
people have taken advantage of the an anonymity that is
afforded by the Internet. Whether it’s protesters in
the Arab Spring, right? Or people tweeting in Turkey, or people
who don’t wanna reveal their identity, because they would like to,
they fear government repression. But it’s the anonymity feature of the
Internet which gives us the bot problem and they unaccountable
hate speech problem. So first the bot problem, if you had
to identify, again, something about the technology that is itself
inherently threatening to democracy. The fact that we are going to be unable
and really are even now unable to tell who is speaking to us, a computer or
a person really highlights the unique stress that the Internet
is posing to democracy, right? Now, there’s a lot of debate over
how big a deal bots are in terms of their persuasive impact on voters and
alike. We know that roughly
10% of Twitter is bots. Most communication, the majority of
communication that happens on the Internet right now is done by computers
not by human beings, right? Roughly 40% of the accounts in
Twitter in Russia are bots. Most of what bots do is that they trick
other bots like search engines to elevate topics in news feeds and
search engine alike. But again, this is something
that we need to confront when we start thinking about how the Internet
itself poses a challenge to democracy. Same as true, the same kind of shield
that anonymity provides the machines, it also provides to human beings, right? So when you are able to engage
in unaccountable speech, which is to say that where the person
who’s listening to you is not actually going to be able to send a signal
to you about how they feel, right? You’re more likely to engage in
the kind of offensive speech or stuff that could be insulting or inciting. Third sort of phenomenon on the Internet. And that is the dynamic of echo
chambers and filter bubbles. We’ve got a fancy term for
this in political science or communications studies, and
that’s homophily, right? It’s the likelihood that you are going to
self-select into an information ecosystem, which sort of reinforces your beliefs. Now, on this point, there’s actually quite
a bit of debate among political scientists as to whether the Internet is sort
of leading to filter bubbles and echo chambers in our news consumption. Because to some extent, when you’re on
Facebook or when you’re on another social media platform, you’re exposed to the kind
of people who might be different than the ones you walk into in your
daily life in your neighborhood. And so if you’re one
particular political party and most of your friends in you neighborhood
share that same partisan affiliation, when you get on Facebook you
all have that uncle, right? Who’s gonna be posting, and you ordinarily
just hear from him on Thanksgiving dinner, but now you get to see his screams
every day on Facebook, right? And so there is a debate about
how much the Internet is leading to have awfully an echo chambers. But there’s no question that in certain
corners of the Internet, right? Certain corners of the Internet
like 4chan and 8chan, subreddit and the like you have the
capacity to self select into information ecosystems that are privileging the kinds
of beliefs that you already have. Fourth point is about sovereignty, right? And this again, so the relationship
to democracy is probably obvious. For the most part, throughout the history
of democracy, we have assumed that there is a government that can control the
electoral and campaign ecosystem, right? And so
that the speech that would be relevant to campaigns will be mostly made by those
who are inside the country itself, right? Now, the Russian Intervention in the 2016
election is only the sort of most notorious example. But you see this around the world
with both state and non-state actors. The rise of even supranational consulting
organizations that specialize in this. But if you go to Europe, they’re
actually worried about the sovereignty question from a different angle, right? It’s not just about one country
invading another sort of populations, communication and campaign sphere. It’s also about how American technology
companies are essentially writing the rules for
political debate around the world, right? And so Nick Clegg who is
the Vice President of Facebook, former Deputy Prime Minister
of the UK tells this story. That last March he had to go to Europe
to announce what would be the rules for political advertising for
the European elections, all right? So just think about that for a second,
that a vice president of American technology company is going to
the European community to announce what the rules are gonna be for
their elections, right? And this is sort of an unprecedented
chapter in the history of telecommunication. And that’s related to the final problem or
final phenomenon, which is the rise of the communication monopolies,
particular Google and Facebook. Now, Google and Facebook are unprecedented
in the power and reach that they have over telecommunication as sort of
the infrastructure around the world. The only historical analog might be the
pre-reformation catholic church, right? If you had this run a search through what
is happening in the telecommunications for the last 500, 600 years, right? Now, we obviously benefit a lot by
having them here in our neighborhood. When I talked about
myself as a practitioner, I do a lot at work with these firms. But one of kinda key democracy
endangering features here, which is different than the general
kinda any trust argument that you hear. Is that the rules that Facebook and
Google write, as to their terms of service and
community guidelines, are in some ways more important than
formal law when it comes to speech during election campaigns and with respect
to democracy in general, right? And so those decisions have their terms
of service, whether it’s hate speech, or incitement, or political advertising. Are really setting the ground rules for how Democratic campaigns around
the world are going to be conducted. All right, so I started this
talk by asking the question, can democracy survive the Internet? And I was tempted to sort of
have a typical Internet answer, the answer may surprise you.>>[LAUGH]
>>But the answer is that’s what we
at Stanford are trying to do. We’ve developed this new cyber Policy
Center, which is bringing together sort of a whole university approach from
political science, from communication, from computer science, from law, from
business to try to attack these questions of how technology is affecting
democracy around the world. In addition, we brought together
people like Alex Stamos, the former CEO of Facebook. Or Daphne Keller, formerly head of
Integrated Liability at Google. Or Maria Shockey, who’s a Dutch Member
of the European Parliament who has been big on tech regulation. To try to sort of bring Stanford to
the forefront of thinking about these critical policy questions of how we
can save democracy from the Internet. Because we here in Silicon Valley
may have broken it, but we’re gonna build it back up. So thank you very much.>>[APPLAUSE]

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