Czar seeks 'chilling effect' on internet

meta-message: A term, widely credited to Gerard Nierenberg, used to refer to messages that are not directly delivered but emerge from between the written or spoken lines.

The meta-message of Cass Sunstein's new book delivers a warning to those who would spread Internet "rumors" about Barack Obama.

The Regulatory Czar's latest book is entitled Rumors. It purports to be about how rumors spread. To that end, it's full of remarkable insights such as "Many of us accept false rumors because of either our fears or our hopes." (p. 6) "Your willingness to believe a rumor will inevitably depend on the information with which you start." (p. 19) "Sometimes people believe rumors because other people believe them." (p. 28) Plus the shocking revelation that "Many rumors spread conspiracy theories." (p. 7)  

The subtitle of the book is "How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done." The answer to "What Can Be Done" harbors the book's meta-message. For Sunstein, "part of the answer lies in recognizing that a ‘chilling effect' on those who would spread destructive falsehood can be an excellent idea." (p. 5) (His meta-message raises its head.)

Most of Sunstein's examples of rumor sources are directed against the Right. "If the National Rifle Association spreads a rumor that a political candidate wants to ‘confiscate guns,' or if an environmental organization spreads a rumor that someone believes that climate change is a ‘hoax,' many people will be affected, because they tend to believe the National Rifle Association or the environmental organization." (p. 8) (Notice the upside down logic in the climate change example. In Sunstein's world why would an environmental organization ever start a "hoax" rumor in the first place?)

His answer to the subtitle phrase "How Falsehoods Spread" includes those propagators who are narrowly self-interested.  Like "When members of the Republican Party spread rumors about an appointee of a Democratic president, they hope to injure not only the reputation and the standing of the appointee but also that of the president and the Democratic Party as a whole, thus promoting the interests of Republicans." (p. 13) (Sounds like he might be writing about himself as a target of rumors.)

Another category of rumor propagators are the generally self-interested.  Like when "Some right-wing websites liked to make absurd and hateful remarks about the alleged relationship between Barack Obama and the former radical Bill Ayers." (p. 13) ("Former" radical?)

Then there are the altruistic propagators. Like "When Sean Hannity, the television talk show host, attacked Barack Obama because of his alleged associations, one of his goals might have been to promote values and causes that he cherishes." (p. 14) 

Sunstein occasionally defends someone from the Right against rumors, but not often. Those few examples read as being disingenuous. His balance clearly slants toward the offended Left.

He hand wrings over the failure of the Obama campaign's website to thoroughly rebut rumors about their candidate. He notes that rebutting a rumor may only enhance its spread. (He appears not to factor in the cogency of the rebuttal.)

So, according to Sunstein, What Can Be Done about false rumors? Well, here's the ramp-up to his solution:

"These points should not be taken as a plea for any kind of censorship...Sometimes a chilling effect can be an excellent safeguard...We need, in short, to find ways to discourage the harmful effects of false rumors." (pp. 10-11)

Of course, creating a "chilling effect" isn't censorship.

On page 78 of the 88-pages book -- more accurately, a monograph -- the action steps that would accompany Sunstein's meta-message emerge.

"Any marketplace requires standards and ground rules; no market can operate as a free-for-all.  It is not obvious that the current regulatory system for free speech -- the current setting of chill -- is the one that we would or should choose for the Internet era." (p. 78)

And what might those "standards and ground rules" for the Internet era include?

  • "[A] general right to demand retraction after a clear demonstration that a statement is both false and damaging. If a newspaper of broadcaster or blogger refuses to provide a prominent retraction after a reasonable period of time, it might be liable for at least modest damages."
  • "On the Internet in particular, people might have a right to ‘notice and take down.' [T]hose who run websites would be obliged to take down falsehoods upon notice."
  • "Damage caps and schedules could do a great deal to promote free speech values while also ensuring a measure of deterrence...A cap on damages, alongside liability to establish what is actually true, could work to leverage the propagator's concern for his reputation to good effect." (pp. 78-79)
And, just in case the meta-message isn't clear, the last sentence in Sunstein's monograph reads:

"Some kind of chilling effect on damaging rumors is exceedingly important -- not only to protect people against negligence, cruelty, and unjustified damage to their reputations, but also to ensure the proper functioning of democracy itself." (p. 88)

You may be asking -- So what?

Well, Cass Sunstein is the Regulatory Czar.  He was confirmed by the Senate by a 57-40 vote.  Republican Senators among the 57 who voted for confirmation included: Snowe (ME); Collins (ME); Bennett (UT); Hatch (UT); Lugar (IN); and Voinovich (OH).

If Czar Sunstein is able to enact the "chilling effect" that he proposes in Rumors by the next general election, websites like the American Thinker could become regular targets of retraction demands from the Left, and face the threat of fines for spreading what the Regulatory Czar defines as "rumors."