The US Supreme Court is seen in Washington. Reuters
Cass R. Sunstein, Tribune News Service
The US Supreme Court is strongly committed to the “marketplace of ideas.” It tends to believe, in the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, that the remedy for falsehoods and fallacies is “more speech, not enforced silence.”
If you believe that, you might also believe that if people lie about COVID-19, the 2020 presidential election, a politician, a journalist, a neighbour — or you or me — nothing can be done. Sure, you can answer with “counterspeech”: the truth. And that’s it.
The problem is in many cases, counterspeech is ineffective. Lies lodge in the human mind. They are like cockroaches: You can’t quite get rid of them.
This psychological reality raises serious questions about current constitutional understandings and also about the current practices of social media platforms, including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, in trying to stop falsehoods. Ironically, those understandings, and those practices, may themselves be based on a mistake of fact — something like misinformation.
In United States v. Alvarez, decided in 2012, the Supreme Court appeared to rule that lies and lying are protected by the First Amendment. The court struck down a provision of the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a federal crime if you claim, falsely, that you won the Congressional Medal of Honor. According to the court, that provision is unconstitutional; the government cannot punish that lie.
As the court put it: “A Government-created database could list Congressional Medal of Honor winners. Were a database accessible through the Internet, it would be easy to verify and expose false claims.” In a nutshell: The right remedy for lies is more speech, not enforced silence.
The Alvarez case involved a boastful lie about oneself, and it is not entirely clear how it applies to vicious lies about others, or to lies about health, safety and elections. In limited circumstances, the justices have allowed civil actions against defamation, even when a public figure is involved. But in general, the court has been reluctant to allow any kind of “truth police.” Social media providers, prominently including Facebook, have felt the same way.
But the broad protection of lies, defended by reference to the marketplace of ideas, rests on an inadequate understanding of human psychology.
Whenever someone tells us something, our initial inclination is to believe it. If we are told that it is going to snow tomorrow, that the local sports team won today’s football game, or that a good friend just had a heart attack, we tend to think we have been told the truth.
Sure, you might not believe a source that you have learned to distrust. But most of the time, we assume that what we hear is true.
It’s called “truth bias,” and it extends more broadly than that. Suppose you hear something that you really know to be false. Or suppose that right after you are told something, you are explicitly told, “That was a lie!” For example, the falsehood might be that a vaccine doesn’t work, that a corporate executive engaged in sexual harassment, that an aspiring politician was once a member of the Communist Party, or that a prominent sociologist is a cocaine addict.
Even if you are informed that what you have heard is false — a joke or an act of malice — you are likely to have a lingering sense that it is true, or at least that it might be true. That impression can last a long time. It will probably create a cloud of suspicion, fear or doubt. It can easily affect your behaviour.
It might lead you to fear or dislike someone, or to believe there’s something wrong with that person, even if there really isn’t. You might think that on balance, a statement is probably false.
But “probably false” doesn’t mean “definitely false.” It means “maybe true.”
University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin has undertaken some fascinating experiments that help explain what’s going on here. In one of his experiments, people were asked to put sugar from a commercial sugar package into two similar brown bottles. Then people were given two labels, “sugar” and “sodium cyanide,” and were asked to put them on the two bottles, however they liked.
After having done that, people were reluctant to take sugar from the bottle labeled “sodium cyanide” — even though they themselves had affixed the label! When the label “cyanide” is seen on a bottle, people don’t want to use what’s inside it, even if they know, for a fact, that it’s only sugar. That helps explain why lies and falsehoods are so corrosive; some part of us believes them, even if we know we shouldn’t.
The death of iconic, liberal US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has heightened tensions in an already tense presidential and Congressional election campaign.
Following the death of celebrated, liberal Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the already heated US general election campaign has become frenetic. Instead of observing a decent pause to respect the passing
Legally speaking, President Donald Trump’s various election lawsuits amount to nothing. On Wednesday the Trump campaign announced an array of different legal efforts to fight Joe Biden’s apparently impending Electoral College victory.
China seems to have made a clear shift in stance towards Taiwan in the wake of United States House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s dramatic and provocative visit to Taiwan last week. Reuters reported that after carrying out high-stakes military drills around Taiwan, China of President Xi Jinping has in a
Based on what we know, there are three major legal takeaways from the FBI’s search of Donald Trump’s Florida home on Monday. First, this is a big deal, historically and constitutionally speaking. As far as I can tell, a criminal search warrant has never been executed against a former president. Second, from the perspective of
According to research conducted by the University of Kent, smells that we experience outdoors evoke pleasant memories and a sense of well-being. There’s no doubt that smells have a tendency to arouse strong emotions in people. Smells, in general, have memories of days gone by. Memories of your home country.
Hats off to His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, who directed the disbursement of Dhs50,000 to each family, whose homes were damaged by rain in the Eastern Region, and they were residing in shelter homes in the emirate. It was revealed that 65 families