Information is everywhere, but good information is not. Why? Because the barriers to entry are so low. In the Middle Ages, when paper was a sign of wealth and books were locked up in monasteries, knowledge was considered valuable and creating it was costly. To be sure, there was some flat-earthy nonsense locked up in those tomes and religious and political rulers used their claims to knowledge as political weapons. Today the challenge is different. We now live at the opposite extreme, where anyone—from foreign adversaries to any crackpot with a conspiracy theory—can post original “research” online. And they do. Telling the difference between fact and fiction isn’t so easy. A few months ago, one of my graduate student researchers included information in a paper that I found oddly inaccurate, so I checked the footnotes. The source was “RT”—as in the outlet formerly known as Russia Today, a propaganda arm of the Kremlin. Stanford students aren’t the only ones struggling with real fake news. In December, the Pakistani defense minister rattled his nuclear saber in response to an Israeli tweet. Except the Israeli tweet wasn’t real.
Meanwhile, attitudes toward traditional information sources like the mainstream media and universities are souring, particularly among Republicans. Confidence in newspapers has declined by more than 20 points since 1977. Last month, a Pew survey found that for the first time, a majority of Republicans had a negative view of American universities.
The antidote to bad information used to be more information. Not anymore. What good is more information if people don't trust it—or if the traditional methods of sorting the good information from the bad (including the weighty brands of certain news organizations) don't work anymore? The marketplace of ideas is experiencing market failure. When information proliferates and credibility shrinks, reasoned argument suffers and democratic society decays.
Paradox #2: More connectivity, less civility
Today nearly half the world is online. By 2020 more people are expected to have cell phones than running water. But civility has not accelerated in tandem. In earlier times, it took some effort to deliver hurtful messages. In the U.K.’s Parliament building, seating in the House of Commons is designed to space the opposition at least two sword lengths apart from the ruling party—just in case. Distance has its benefits. Years ago, I got a letter from a federal inmate claiming I was part of a 9/11 conspiracy and the murder for which he had been convicted. He went to a lot of trouble to write me with all that multi-colored ink. He even had to pay for the stamp. Now, I can get anonymous vitriol on Twitter, or in my email, or in the comments section of something I write—instantly, for free.
Sure, connectivity has created tremendous positive changes, including new markets in developing nations and new bonds among kindred spirits across vast distances. But connectivity has also made nasty discourse more convenient and socially acceptable. The step between harmful speech and chilled speech is a small one. Civility is not a convenience. It is a cornerstone of free speech in a liberal society. Trump may personify America’s descent into coarse discourse and amplify its spread. But it didn’t start and will not stop in Trump Tower or the White House. The root causes lie deeper.