Guarding the Gates

We old people remember (and can’t stop talking about) the golden age when there were only three TV networks in America and the only question at 7pm (6pm Central) was whether to watch the national news on CBS (Cronkite), NBC (Huntley & Brinkley) or ABC (somebody else). Then, in 1975, PBS added a fourth possibility (MacNeil & Lehrer). We were so well-informed! And un-confused!

The age isn’t so golden today. Lawyer and journalist Asha Rangappa has some thoughts on the matter, with which I don’t totally agree:

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones filed for bankruptcy on Friday, after being ordered to pay over $1.5 billion to several parents of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut who had sued him for defamation. On his radio program and website, Jones had repeatedly accused the parents of being “crisis actors” who were lying about their children dying and claimed the entire event was a “false flag” operation. The lawsuits and the awards demonstrate that increasingly, the court system may be the only institution left that can adequately police the line between truth and lies — which is not a good sign for our democracy.

She then shows a diagram with three categories: a Sphere of Consensus containing things about which all reasonable people agree; a Sphere of Controversy that contains ideas about which reasonable people can disagree and which can be reasonably debated; and a Sphere of Deviance, where ideas like Jones’s “crisis actors” resides. They’re the deviant ideas that aren’t worthy of debate. In other words, Crazy Town.

As [NYU professor Jay] Rosen has observed, traditionally journalists have defined and guarded the boundaries of these spheres — they were the gatekeepers of what was newsworthy, what deserved “two sides” coverage, and what was not given a platform. He notes that journalists were able to maintain this role because viewers and readers were, as he calls them, “atomized” — that is, disconnected from each other and vertically connected to sources of information….

The emergence of the internet and social media [preceded by the arrival of cable TV], [erased] this atomization, allowing views and readers to connect horizontally — which means that these spheres are no longer determined by journalists. Since people are no longer a captive audience and can share information among and with each other, they can redefine what can enter into the spheres of consensus and legitimate controversy.

This, of course, has benefits. Consider, for example, Black Lives Matter, which brought attention to a pervasive pattern of police brutality against Black Americans. The ability to share videos across social media platforms shined a spotlight on a side of America that had largely been excluded by traditional media and of which many Americans were unaware. The same could be said for the #MeToo movement, which allowed victims of sexual harassment and misconduct to connect with each other and bring to light an issue which had, in some instances, been rejected from coverage by major news networks. Things that may have been (wrongly) relegated to the “sphere of deviance” in the traditional model have found a place in today’s information space, democratizing the voices that can be heard and bringing these issues into the sphere of controversy, if not consensus.

As Rosen notes, however, there is a dark side to this horizontal connection. There are now no gatekeepers at all, so the divisions between the three spheres aren’t just blurred, they basically don’t exist. Just look at the last week — it’s 2022 and Kanye West has a platform to profess his admiration for Hitler (incidentally, on Alex Jones’ show). What was once unquestionably in the sphere of deviance has (apparently) become a topic of debate. From the other direction, concepts that used to be unquestioned — like basic science and epidemiology — are now challenged or dismissed entirely. If I had to draw a diagram of where we are today, it would be just one big sphere of controversy.

Here, Rangappa is exaggerating. It’s more accurate to say the Sphere of Consensus has shrunk. There are residents of Crazy Town who think the 2020 election was stolen, but most of them accept that Joe Biden is living in the White House (only some of them are convinced the white-haired guy is an impostor).

Which is where Alex Jones comes in. Jones helped spread the Pizzagate theory — this was the rumor that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor … — and, more recently, the “Stop the Steal” disinformation campaign…. The only gatekeepers who might restrain him are social media platforms [and cable networks] if they choose to self police. Even then, their efforts might slow down the spread of his conspiracy theories, but wouldn’t stop the millions of readers who visit his website each month from consuming his “news” directly.

Enter the courts. The judicial system is one of the few … institutions left where truth actually matters, and can be enforced. We saw this most clearly in the dozens of lawsuits … filed after the 2020 election alleging widespread voter fraud — sixty three cases were dismissed, mainly for lack of proof. This is because in a courtroom, we have rules about truth. Facts have to exist in order to be presented as evidence. Judges determine what issues are in dispute, and what is irrelevant. Juries can’t make up their own evidence; they have to weigh and evaluate what is presented to them. In a defamation case, the only defense is to demonstrate that your statements true — and even Jones had to concede on the witness stand that Sandy Hook was real.

These are welcome outcomes, but leaving courts to arbitrate what is true and what is not is not a great development for democracy overall. For one thing, most of the disinformation narratives we must contend with won’t end up being litigated, leaving them to cause chaos and harm, as Jones has. More importantly, an increase in litigation is a symptom of deterioration of social trust, a key indicator of societal health. Robert Putnam [in his book Bowling Alone] notes that when a society has a high level of generalized trust — basically, when we follow the Golden Rule and act in ways that benefit our collective self interest, like behaving honestly — it is healthier and more efficient….As he writes:

“When each of us can relax her guard a little, what economists term ‘transaction costs’ — the costs of the everyday business of life, as well as the costs of commercial transaction — are reduced. This is no doubt why, as economists have recently discovered, trusting communities, all other things being equal, have a measurable economic advantage. The almost imperceptible background stress of daily ‘transaction costs’ — from worrying about whether you got the right change back from the clerk to double-checking that you locked the car door — may also help explain why students of public health find that life expectancy itself is enhanced in more trustful communities. A society that relies on generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society, for the same reason that money is more efficient than barter. Honesty and trust lubricate the inevitable frictions of social life.”

When that generalized trust breaks down, it is replaced by “cool trust” — formal rules and enforcement mechanisms that force people to uphold their civic and social obligations to society. Putnam continues:

“[O]ne alternative to generalized reciprocity and socially embedded honesty is the rule of law — formal contracts, courts, litigation, adjudication, and enforcement by the state. Thus, if the lubricant of thin trust is evaporating from society, we might expect to find a greater reliance on the law as a basis of cooperation. If the handshake is no longer binding and reassuring, perhaps the notarized contract, the deposition, and the subpoena will work almost as well.”

Having courts police our basic obligations to each other — like telling the truth about actual events — is a good stopgap, but isn’t sustainable for a healthy democracy. We need to have mechanisms outside the judicial system to resurrect some boundaries between agreed upon facts, legitimate controversies, and ideas that are not worthy of debate. Until we can recalibrate those three spheres, perhaps the only people who will make out ahead are the lawyers.


I’ll add that journalists and the legal system aren’t the only gatekeepers. We’re all responsible for pushing back on crazy ideas when we encounter them in public or private life. In particular, politicians and everybody else who has a public platform should act as gatekeepers, doing what they can to keep a lid on the insanity. The same applies to corporations and wealthy individuals. With power comes responsibility.