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Article posted Mar 03 2011, 8:03 AM Category: Commentary Source: C.J. Maloney Print

Internet Lovers! Know Your Enemy: Cass Sunstein

by C.J. Maloney

Truth is the foundation on which the power of the press stands and falls, and our only demand of the press, also the foreign press, is that they report the truth about Germany. -- Otto Dietrich, Reich Press Chief, 1934

Democracy is under assault! To the bulwarks! Quick, load the catapult with our freedom of speech and shoot it over at the enemy; it’s our only hope! So says Harvard professor Cass Sunstein in his On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done. More an 88-page gab session than a structured book, On Rumors makes me wonder if this is how Professor Sunstein sounds at the chalkboard…placid, scattershot and above all, repetitive. The villain of his piece is the Internet – a fertile breeding ground for "false" rumors – and his knight in shining armor the government censor.

The book starts off with, ends, and endlessly repeats a trumpet blast sure to grab the modern American ear – democracy is in peril. (Sunstein, 3, 10, 65, 85, etc.) The culprit? Free speech – a protective shield for the "false" rumors so hated by the author, all running amok and unfettered via the Internet highway, a regulatory void with no political infringements whatsoever. The Internet is, to the author, a dagger pointed at the very heart of democracy.

Sunstein puts forth two goals of his effort. First, to study how and why rumors spread, where he attempts to use social cascades and group polarization to paint the obvious with an intellectual varnish, a collegiate effort to erect something as earthy as "telegraph, telephone, tell a friend" into a three-month long lecture that costs $17,000 to hear at Harvard.

His second goal is the book’s main course – and the part of most interest to those in power itching for any excuse to regulate the Internet – where he grants some helpful suggestions as to "what we can do to protect ourselves against the harmful effects of false rumors." (Sunstein, 4-5) His answer? Not censorship (heavens, no!) but the imposition of a "chilling effect" on such rumors; just the "false" ones, mind you.

Sunstein insists this is necessary as "False rumors…can threaten careers, policies, public officials, and sometimes even democracy itself." (Sunstein, 3) Of course, no warning would be complete for post-9-11 America without pointing out how the Internet is "crucial in the process of radicalization." (Sunstein, 41) He plays to the reader’s self-interest, as "rumors can harm the economy" (Sunstein, 3) and "fuel speculative bubbles, greatly inflating prices" (Sunstein, 8) as well as his self-conceit, since "all of us are potential victims of rumors, including false and vicious ones." (Sunstein, 3)

A large concern of the author is the protection of the political elite, since with the spread of "false" rumors "people might lose faith…in their government itself." (Sunstein, 10) Though he warns that "many rumors spread conspiracy theories" (Sunstein, 7) I’d advise him to read a copy of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by his fellow Harvard professor Bernard Bailyn, who helpfully points out that our Founders were rabid "conspiracy theorists" and, even more to the point, urge Sunstein to look at history and the innumerable times when "conspiracy" theories proved themselves to be absolutely true.

For all his learned sounding discourse, Sunstein freely admits he has no idea what exactly a rumor is, as "there is no settled definition of rumors, and I will not attempt to offer one here." (Sunstein, 5) He has the mind of your standard American activist, her "progressives," always on the look out for a social ill to cure via the application of political power. All he needs, in this case, is to assault the freedom of speech so he may stop something he can’t quite define but knows for certain is there.

The Censorship That Dares Not Speak Its Name

These points should not be taken as a plea for any kind of censorship…

~ Cass Sunstein, On Rumors, 2009

Most grating on the reader’s ear (and insulting to his intelligence) is Sunstein’s habit of softening every statement in an attempt to appear thoughtful and levelheaded about what he is proposing. This leads him to write in the same manner as an insecure teenage girl speaks, every sentence reads as if it should end with a question mark, as when "(the problem) seems to be increasing" (Sunstein, 10) and "rumors are nearly as old as human history." (Sunstein, 3) Eventually his constant use of softeners make him appear not reasonable, but weak-kneed. This book lacks the courage of the author’s convictions.

Even his outright call for censorship arrives on stage with a timid limp – Sunstein is loath to come out and say what he means. He claims that "while old style censorship is out of the question" (Sunstein, 12) and "a chilling effect can be exceedingly harmful…let’s be careful about undue emphasis on the underlying risk…we should be able to agree that on occasion, the chilling effect is a very good thing." (Sunstein, 72) As always with Sunstein, it comes back to the Internet. "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." (Sunstein, 78)

From back to the land crazes to imperialist designs on foreign lands to the atomic bomb, much bloodshed, misery, and inhumanity have flowed from America’s university system. Still I submit there is neither reason nor right to censure our universities and their free flow of ideas because much greatness, too, has come out of them. To obtain the good, we must put up with the bad. And, I suggest to Professor Sunstein, the Internet deserves the same consideration.

In this book’s most pertinent passage (for its author) Sunstein writes "Over the course of our lives, it is nearly inevitable that all of us will make or have made statements…that will seem to some members of the public a kind of smoking gun – proof of poor judgment." (Sunstein, 64) On Rumors is indeed that, 88 pages of irrefutable proof of Sunstein’s exceptionally shoddy logic, intellectual arrogance and child-like trust in power.

For but one example of that last, while he points out (correctly) that "we lack direct or personal knowledge about the facts that underlie most of our judgments" (Sunstein, 5) he exempts whatever political gatekeepers he’d empower to enforce his "chilling" of "false" rumors from this shortcoming. Sunstein assumes that those in power will not only know what is true or false, but will use their power to "chill" what they claim to be false in a completely honest, benevolent manner. He has a trust in power, a trust in the political class, which neither human nature nor recorded history allows to any rational man.

It is best we remember J.S. Mill’s take on freedom of speech when he warned "the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course, deny its truth; but they are not infallible." (Mill, 16)

And neither is Cass Sunstein; and On Rumors, a poorly written, blatant assault on our freedom of speech, proves my point.

Sources Cited

Mill, J.S. On Liberty. (Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., Indianapolis, IN, 1978)

Sunstein, Cass R. On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done. (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, New York, 2009)
__
CJ Maloney [send him mail] lives and works in New York City. All opinions expressed are his alone. He blogs for Liberty & Power on the History News Network website and the DailyKos. His first book Back to the Land (Arthurdale, FDR’s New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning) is to be released by John Wiley and Sons in March 2011.

Copyright © 2011 by LewRockwell.com.





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Comments 1 - 5 of 5 Add Comment Page 1 of 1
Nunya Bizness

Posted: Mar 03 2011, 7:41 PM

Link
99141 How typical of a Zionist shill to try to censor the WWW. The Zionist criminal network that controls America is afraid of the truth getting out -- that Dick Cheney and his neocon pals pulled off 9-11. The entire world knows this with the exception of corporate media controlled sheep.

That is all.

Dave

Posted: Mar 04 2011, 4:47 AM

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police e

<It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment we are in a very serious mess, so serious that even the dullest witted people find it difficult to remain unaware of it. We are living in a world in which nobody is free, in which hardly anybody is secure, in which it is almost impossible to be honest and stay alive.' - Eric Blair (alter ego George Orwell)>

i disagree, disagree emphatically. truth is inherently stronger than the lie, stating the obvious is of immense benefit, especially at a time of oppression where truth is widely known and widely denied.

to assert a realisable truth i paraphrase Thoreau:
'some circumstancial evidence is very strong, as when you find an elephant in the room.'

we live in a world of omnipresent lies but much has changed. though intellect can resolve an action to consequence and therefore engage problems, this has in part been disabled with the surround sound lying system. critical failure as when things are made wrong it can be decades before this manifests in people's lives by which time things are by definition somewhat catastrophic.

now things are very different because they are at the sensory level, people are feeling the pain. tavistock try to steal a march by hitting people so hard that sensory inputs are the in the form of serious trauma (injury), so traumatised people try to disconnect from their senses (reality).

all this is a changing, the internet for example. i am here in the middle of ww3, not a prisoner of war (currently) exposing the war that almost everyone knows and vast numbers of people deny. free speech, i am for it. in my case it is a means of connecting my best attempt at a free mind with a matrix based on information where the information doesn't matter as long as it sabotages everyone.

the internet has allowed presentation of many views, people are likely to notice from the range of views that some have made mistakes, some are deliberately lying, some deliberately lying consistantly as a matter of policy (police e).
Dave

Posted: Mar 04 2011, 4:57 AM

Link
previously there were political actions unrealised for what they were, their significance, action and downstream consequence (it is politics, things would get worse). we look at imminent local threats as priority, that makes sense as if we don't survive near threats we are not around to deal with longer term issues. thus people may not see that the execution of jfk was war against humanity that would downstream manifest at a physical level, the near open war against american people as now.

here in exeter i am surrounded by roman soldiers in one form or another. i am not though the iraqi information minister, the stooge comedian in what was at the time a fake public war. things have changed, people are examining the true difficulties and identifying the problem is a long way down the road to solution. that follows automatically in correlation to necessity. necessity is becoming visible at all levels.

the presentation of troops on the streets in black and white uniforms is an attempt to tell me that 'we are in control' when it is clear that control is busting left, right and centre.

no left (antithesis) and right (thesis) where is the hegel? no centre, who will start the hegel. people rather than waiting are looking for these things now.

<outlawed on the street, in steps, at banks, in the theatre ... France spells [spells, routine witchcraft] out niqab ban [niqab ban anti-thesis] - the guardian today>
Dave

Posted: Mar 04 2011, 5:02 AM

Link
wave riders

'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times', what the dickens is going on? people are not so much asking what is going on but figuring it out and spotting these boom and bust cycles where minority control creates waves and rides them. minority control is not an enterprise that can be conducted honestly, far from it. as for action and consequence, to give government an inch is sacrifice the next generation if not along with the current one. this is being realised.

the exit to this predicament is inherent in its realisation unless denied. free speech helps, used wisely every little helps.

as things have gone as far as they have in the way they have i am seeing the next 1000 years with people who are equiped to handle the m theory of politics that they can recognise it, recognise it even if it is inside them and thus avoid another dickens boom bust where the best of times was more likely temporary relief from a war in construction.

David Stanley
Dave

Posted: Mar 04 2011, 6:38 AM

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hypnotism

'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times' said a wordsmith of historical distinction. what the dickens is going on?

hypnotism, great way to capture an audience. that chunk of dickens is a sin wave (high then low), it resonates in people (goes into oscillation - repeated highs and lows). whose wave is it?

people know politicians lie for an unliving. they do a lot more than that, it includes from truth to total abstraction, preferably to a captured audience.
Comments 1 - 5 of 5 Page 1 of 1


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