This piece originally appeared in Reason Magazine on May 3, 2022.
New York Journal publisher William Randolph Hearst reportedly said, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war!”
Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, sensationalized, exaggerated, and outright lied to millions of Americans daily in the lead up to the Spanish-American War, spreading what many today would call “disinformation.” Yellow journalism famously fanned the flames of conflict, wrongly blaming the Spanish for sinking the U.S.S. Maine. But if political lies aren’t new, why are so many powerful institutions hyping fears about the internet and flirting with new restrictions on speech?
The Biden Administration came under fire last week for creating the Disinformation Governance Board under the Department of Homeland Security—only a few days after former President Barack Obama warned that disinformation in the digital age presents an “unprecedented crisis for democracy” in an address at Stanford University on April 21st. Two weeks earlier, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and The Atlantic hosted a “groundbreaking” three-day event on how to combat online disinformation. And a month before that, The New York Times published an op-ed by University of California, Irvine Law Professor Richard L. Hasen arguing, “There can be no doubt that virally spread political disinformation and delusional invective about stolen, rigged elections are threatening the foundation of our Republic.”
Lawmakers increasingly look to turn fears about disinformation into laws restricting free speech.
One such proposal is Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s “Honest Ads Act,” which is regularly featured in Democratic election reform packages like H.R. 1 and the Freedom to Vote Act. Ironically, its title could be called disinformation, because it has nothing to do with making ads honest.
This legislation would drive up the costs of speaking online through unprecedented regulatory burdens on ads related to social or political issues. It would force web platforms to warehouse data about ad buyers in public files, including the buyer’s name, address, and minutiae about the ad’s cost and viewership. It would impose rigid disclaimer requirements that would make many cost-effective forms of online advertising impractical.
The bill even threatens to regulate political content on websites, YouTube, and mass emails by removing a key protection from the law that limits campaign finance laws online to paid advertising.
Proponents say policies like these are necessary because today’s information environment is flooded with “cheap speech” of little value, making it harder for voters to discern what’s accurate. But was it easier to discern accuracy when Hearst and Pulitzer were furnishing headlines?
If the news environment of the 1890s is too distant of an example, consider 1990, when a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah gave a gut-wrenching—and completely fabricated—congressional testimony alleging to have witnessed Iraqi soldiers remove Kuwaiti babies from incubators and leave them to die on the cold floor. Portions of her testimony aired on ABC’s Nightline and NBC Nightly News, reaching an estimated 35 million and 53 million Americans respectively, before airing on 700 other television stations and going virtually unchecked for nearly a year.
The American people didn’t learn the truth behind Nayirah’s story until 1992—a full year after Congress authorized the use of military force in Iraq. In the lead-up to that decision, her gripping tale was invoked by President George H.W. Bush six times in one month, and cited by seven senators in their speeches supporting the same cause.
Scandals like these happened long before the rise of Twitter and Facebook and the decline of media gatekeepers. In fact, if people had been able to communicate on social media then the way we do now, the truth about this lie may have been uncovered much sooner. “Cheap speech” can benefit society by allowing researchers or citizen journalists to challenge the narratives of major media outlets and government leaders.
Some people seem to think those benefits are outweighed by the potential for lies to spread online. “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,” Hasen writes. Yet he largely ignores how influential media and prominent political figures contribute to that cesspool.
Hillary Clinton dismissed Trump as an “illegitimate president“; Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, claimed that Russia “of course hacked” the 2016 election; journalists and Democrats credited $100,000 worth of pathetic Russian Facebook ads and memes for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D–Ohio) declared that Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election was “stolen,” and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said then that it was “rigged.”
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. When the New York Post reported on Hunter Biden’s emails in October 2020, numerous outlets dismissed the story as Russian disinformation or deemed it unworthy of coverage, depriving voters of potentially valuable information weeks before the presidential election. The laptop was reportedly authenticated in April 2021 and again in September 2021, but The New York Times and The Washington Post only acknowledged these facts in March 2022.
Scandals like these damage trust in the democratic process and the media, but they would be untouched by proposals like the Honest Ads Act. No matter the source, government has no business legislating fact from fiction.
Americans should not have their right to speak about politics online restricted, especially as politicians and the media continue to blare their own disinformation through megaphones.