The enemy within

| March 4, 2024

Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s interview this month with Russian President Vladimir Putin showcased a seductive but dangerous myth.

Carlson got the reaction he deserved from most mainstream foreign affairs commentators: ridicule at his Dorothy Dixers to a master manipulator of information and narrative. Over two hours, Putin systematically hit his talking points aimed at turning MAGA supporters and similarly disgruntled European voters against Western support for Ukraine.

Many of Carlson’s fellow populist conservatives, meanwhile, backed him on the grounds that the Western public will be better informed, and hence better able to judge their governments’ policies on Russia and Ukraine, if we hear from all sides. By letting Putin talk freely, they argued, Carlson filled in a piece of the picture that was missing. Audiences could then judge for themselves.

If it were just one sacked cable host fawning before a dictator, it wouldn’t be worth all the talk. But the pernicious myth from which the episode drew its strength has a much wider base. It is the so-called free market of ideas, whereby we encourage all points of view into the digital town square and let them thrash it out according to the natural laws of competition. Good ideas will flourish, and bad ones will sink.

Elon Musk cites the free marketplace, or what he terms ‘ free speech absolutism’, as the ostensible grounds for gutting content moderation on Twitter, now X—which is also Carlson’s publishing platform of choice.

The idea seems to have lingering appeal in the laissez-faire sections of Silicon Valley, notwithstanding hesitant steps the big platforms have made towards better moderation, not all of which have been sustained. It’s also popular among political conservatives angry at what they believe is left-wing bias across major platforms, from news media to Facebook, which they argue should be hosting free speech.

But the wrongheadedness of this idea needs to be called out. The number one reason it’s dangerous is that the creators of information are not all equal players on a level field. Big producers of content, with the resources to shape the information environment through their superior skill, scale and tools, have disproportionate influence. Information in a globally connected environment can be pushed, aggregated and manipulated by the powerful operators.

And those who have no ethics have a disproportionate malign influence by not just flooding the space but polluting and corrupting it. That includes Russian troll farms, China’s ‘spamouflage’  networks and propagandist state television networks, though it also includes well-organised non-state movements that push often hateful political views using a keen understanding of algorithms to influence, shape and disrupt debates, often aggressively. This can create fear, encourage silence and effectively censor online users with whose views they disagree.

Nor are Western commercial outlets blameless; there’s a reason close to four in 10 Americans believe or suspect Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 election fair and square, according to reliable polls.

Powerful players can make bad ideas stick more effectively than real people talking about real things.

Second, we don’t receive ideas rationally and based on their quality—with quality defined as the honest, accurate and impartial application of facts to reach some insight. Humans are frequently irrational, distracted, biased, poorly informed and lacking in context. And we’re therefore highly vulnerable to manipulation.

All markets can be distorted but a marketplace of ideas particularly so because an idea is not just any product. It’s a crackle of electricity between neurons that fixes pathways based on perceptions of facts in a new logical string—a process even cognitive science doesn’t properly understand.

Third, markets only work when there are rules and norms of exchange. We invent rules and norms because not everyone does the right thing all the time—and this applies to ideas as much as it does to road laws and consumer protection legislation for cars.

A malign and well-resourced media manipulator walking into a utopian paradise full of well-intentioned, truthful people championing good ideas, eschewing bad ones and claiming perfect common sense—well that’s just going to be carnage. And that’s what we had with Carlson’s interview with Putin. The wolf ate the baby rabbit.

Plenty of legitimate entities have outsized power in the information environment—governments, big companies, the news media and expert bodies. But they are subject to standards and expectations that deter them from lying outright and impose reputational consequences if they do.

Elected governments face a free press doing the job that Carlson so woefully failed to do, as well as opposition parties. For corporations, we have watchdogs to crack down on false advertising. For big institutions, we have various ethics and integrity bodies. We have, in other words, some rules. We have checks and balances that intervene in the market.

A few days after the Moscow interview, Carlson justified his approach by saying he didn’t want to ask all the questions that other journalists would ask. He wanted to give the Russian dictator the most possible time to express whatever he wanted to express.

‘I want to hear Vladimir Putin talk so that people in my country can assess what’s happening,’ Carlson told the World Government Summit in Dubai. And in a separate spiel he urged his followers to watch the interview because ‘you should know as much as you can and then, like a free citizen and not a slave, you can decide for yourself’.

And it’s having an effect, as the Wall Street Journal reported last week from the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, the premier organisation representing Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. A 35-year-old attendee, Kristin Bocanegra, told the Journal: ‘Putin in the Tucker interview was really-eye opening. We got to hear his side, his motives. He’s like a teacher. We’re told by the media that Russia is really bad, but young people today are doing our own research, not just believing what we’re being told.’

Pat O’Brien, 67, told the same reporter: ‘The war is the fault of the US. We have no business encouraging Ukraine to join NATO. That’s what triggered this whole thing.’ The Journal article made it clear this was a prevailing view at CPAC.

Finding solutions can seem overwhelming—and there are no single answers—but that can’t put us off.

First, let’s harness the fact that most people don’t want to live in a world where they can’t trust anything anymore. We can’t become paralysed by the growing view that we are coalescing in echo chambers of political polarisation, plagued by cynicism and unable to agree on common sets of facts to hold reasonable debates in good faith. Let’s move on from that.

Broadly speaking—and not everyone will love hearing this—the collective needs to intervene more heavily. We need to do so both in the consumption and the production of ideas.

On the consumption side, we must strengthen critical thinking across audiences, empowering individuals to wrestle with, and critically examine, the ideas they come across. That means education, civics, digital literacy, starting from birth and continuing through life. Governments tend to put this work in the too-hard basket because it spans many portfolios but they need to accept that it’s their job. Finland is a rare country that has done so, with counter-misinformation classes in schools that help it routinely rank as the number one country in Europe for resilience against misinformation.

The production and transmission sides are trickier because defining good and bad ideas is subjective. People are entitled to argue that military aid to Ukraine could be better spent at home. Or that supporting Ukraine is forestalling, at the cost of Ukrainian lives, a negotiated end that is inevitable.

Trying to measure the utility of an idea based on whether it improves or diminishes a society depends on your definition of a good society. But we can ask, is it fact-based? Is it transparent about its origins. How is it being shared between people? Are the intentions of the person sharing the idea clear? Is the idea at least aimed at improving the well-being of a society even if we might disagree with it?

We should stop tolerating lies. Democracies need to be better than other political systems that ingrain and accept manipulation. And at the moment, we’re not always setting much of an example. We should mark down and punish politicians and institutions that lie and bend reality, at the ballot box, with our wallets or using whatever other levers we have.

This still leaves plenty of room for rhetoricians to debate issues, but we can’t let that be a race to the bottom. Big players need to be more accountable.

The aim is not to neutralise the power of all large actors in the information environment. While connectivity has been wonderfully democratising, we’re not all experts on everything, and we need trusted institutions to give us authoritative information, whether governments, the news media, medical bodies or indeed a proven large language model.

In short, this is an unashamed argument for a heavier hand of the collective to protect our information environment and, therefore, the individual. In democracies, that should include the state, which should support public interest journalism and could even find ways to give audiences incentives to consume more diverse media.

Where we don’t want governments making judgements about fact and truth, they should create independent watchdog agencies and fund civil society groups like fact-checkers that can earn and keep the trust of the public. Taiwan, bombarded by Beijing’s disinformation, is a role model for supporting civil society.

Companies that lie or—in the case of digital platforms—fail to stop the pollution of the information environment should face pressure from public advocacy organisations that encourage boycotts. If we’re worried, as we should be, about X as a platform, then our concern about a platform like TikTok, which is massively influential with our children and is subject to control by the Chinese Communist Party, should be an order of magnitude greater.

Finally, the collective effort should extend globally. Japan to its credit elevated fighting disinformation to a top priority when it hosted the G7 last year. This should be continued and extended across all democratic multilateral groups.

Cleaning up the information environment should be an election issue, rather than just assuming a free market will sort it out for us. The aim must be to allow healthy competition without a free-for-all environment that is vulnerable to monopolies and manipulation. One person’s moderation will always be another’s censorship, but we can’t let that intimidate us. We need to ignore the slippery slope arguments on the right and the left. We need to do the hard work.

This article was published by The Strategist.