By Chet Yarbrough
Lie Machines (How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives.)
By: Philip N. Howard
Narrated by: Mike Chamberlain
Phillip N. Howard (Author, professor at University of Oxford.)
The subtitle of Phillip Howard’s book is hyperbolic. Howard offers a glimmer of hope to the public on “How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies…” He does define the problem, but the solution is elusive.
Howard identifies interest-group’ tools used by lie machines to mislead the public. Howard shows how “Junk News”, some of which are outright lies, have consequences.
Freedom is an essential tenant of Democracy. One does not doubt Howard’s exposé on Democracy’s threat from “…Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations, and Political Operatives.”
There is the Brexit campaign that lied about thousands of pounds saved per month which Great Britain could use for healthcare. That lie is debunked by most English economists. There is the Pizza company child pornography hoax during Hillary Clinton’s campaign for President. It is clearly identified as a hoax that had no basis in fact. Howard’s point is that lies have consequences. However, the exact consequence is often not precisely quantifiable. Did voters change the course of history by believing these lies? Was the Brexit decision and Hillary Clinton’s loss of the presidency caused by lie machines? Those are fair questions, but they have no definitive answer.
Is it criminal to advertise Prevagen as a memory improvement product when there is little science to prove the claim? Is that different than an interest groups’ lie about how many pounds Great Britain will save with Brexit? Consumers decide for themselves whether a lie is a lie or just an interest groups’ bias.
Balancing democratic freedom of speech against what Howard fairly identifies as “junk news” is impractical in the internet age.
As Howard notes, more private information is available to interest groups in the 21st century than ever before. Government, commercial, and private interest groups are willing to pay privately held companies to gather and collate that personal information. Their ability to distort truth is enhanced by algorithms that accumulate that private information to tell others more about what we believe than what most know or understand about ourselves.
Media moguls, like product advertisers, are selling belief with detailed information about who we are, what we buy, who we buy from, and intimate details of our lives freely given on public platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google.
On 4/25/22 we are advised that twitter is being purchased by Elon Musk. Musk idealistically presumes all should have a right to express their opinion. There is truth and lie in that idealism. Truth is the selective statement of facts by major news feeds like the NYT and WSJ. Lie is the statements of muckrakers like Alex Jones.
As Supreme Court Justice Stewart’s once said about pornography, “I know it When I see it”. Freedom of speech can only be regulated by the same yard stick. A lie is a lie and those who believe in democracy can only rely on themselves for knowing a lie when they see it.
Alex Jones and conspiracy on the Sandy Hook School killings.
Howard’s examination of “Lie Machines” reveals a great deal about how lies become the basis for conspiracy theories that mislead the public.
The best one can say about Howard’s great reveal is that every citizen in any society needs to be skeptical. Ironically, Howard implies skepticism compounds the problem of “Lie Machines” by making one believe nothing. One must ask oneself—are there special interests promoting this “fact”, is this fact a lie, should I act based on a lie.
Howard’s solution is to require transparency from the “internet of things”.
He argues any public internet platform should be legally required to reveal the source of their information and that no information should be collected unless authorized by the provider. There is some merit in Howard’s solution. The concern is that there must be supervision of that requirement. Who is the supervisor? If it is government, what are the rules of enforcement? Democracy requires checks and balances.
Whether one is part of the government, a business, or a private citizen, all are subject to the faults of human nature. Can a bureaucracy be created with the required checks and balances that mitigate human nature’s desire for money, power, and prestige?
America is a government of laws and has prospered in part because of checks and balances that ameliorate the worst consequences of human nature. Is regulation of the internet by government better than self-regulation? Who regulates government?
Some argue, the voter regulates government by elections. This is the same voter that elected Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump, one of which deserves high praise; the other something much less.
Revealing “Lie Machines” is the best of what Howard has to offer. The solution revolves around transparency but the mechanism for enforcement beyond individual skepticism and “buyer beware” attitude seem invasively dangerous.