Web Osi Speaks!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"How Falsehoods Spread".

How falsehoods spread
By David Walton

Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein's succinct and cogent little book On Rumors proves to be both timely and prophetic. Written before the current debate on health care reform, it throws considerable light both on the way public perceptions of the proposed reforms have become tainted with misunderstanding, misinformation and outright lies, and on the way that public debate — the very cornerstone of the democratic system — rather than reaching for compromise, has become increasingly polarized and vehement.

Sunstein writes for the general reader, and this is the kind of book you wish everyone would read. In plain, simple prose, using a number of scientific studies and a select number of precedents and examples, Sunstein sets out two goals. First, to explain why we accept rumors, even false, destructive and bizarre ones.

The second is to explain what we can do to protect ourselves against false rumors — an urgent question, in the rapid-fire era of Internet dissemination.

We believe a rumor, not too surprisingly, because we are predisposed to believe it. “The false rumor that Gov. Sarah Palin thought that Africa was a nation rather than a continent gave her critics pleasure. Those who disapproved of her undoubtedly enjoyed believing that she had made such an absurd blunder.”

On a similar note, a World War II rumor that soldiers over 35 were about to be discharged was spread exclusively among soldiers over 35.

Less predictably, it turns out that attempts to counter a rumor with fact or logic are often counterproductive, and serve only to entrench the rumor, and make those who believe it more passionate and intractable.

“Even more troublesome,” says Sunstein, “is the finding that the correction of false perceptions can increase our commitments to those perceptions….This phenomenon comes with an unlovely label: biased assimilation.”

The traditional belief has been that any regulation of free speech must inevitably have a “chilling effect” on necessary dissent: “If they fear lawsuits, whistleblowers, experts, journalists and bloggers might keep their judgments and opinions to themselves,” Sunstein writes.

Sunstein, however, argues for a judicious application of that very chilling effect to Internet postings. He proposes three “modest ideas,” which include: a general right to demand retraction if a statement is both false and damaging; on the Internet in particular, a right to “notice and take down”; and a cap on damages awarded, for example at $15,000.

Based on legal history and precedent, Sunstein's arguments are compelling and persuasive, and well worth reading in their entirety.

“We hardly need to imagine a world,” he writes, “in which people and institutions are being harmed by the rapid spread of damaging falsehoods via the Internet. We live in that world.”

David Walton is a writer and critic who lives in Pittsburgh.



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