End the State Monopoly on Facts

Essay by Adam J. White: “…This Covid-era dynamic has accelerated broader trends toward the consolidation of informational power among a few centralized authorities. And it has further deformed the loose set of institutions and norms that Jonathan Rauch, in a 2018 National Affairs article, identified as Western civilization’s “constitution of knowledge.” This is an arrangement in science, journalism, and the courts in which “any hypothesis can be floated” but “can join reality only insofar as it persuades people after withstanding vigorous questioning and criticism.” The more that Americans delegate the hard work of developing and distributing information to a small number of regulatory institutions, the less capable we all will be of correcting the system’s mistakes — and the more likely the system will be to make mistakes in the first place.

In a 1999 law review article, Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein warned of availability cascades, a process in which activists promote factual assertions and narratives that in a self-reinforcing dynamic become more plausible the more widely available they are, and can eventually overwhelm the public’s perception. The Covid-19 era has been marked by the opposite problem: unavailability cascades, in which media institutions and social media platforms swiftly erase disfavored narratives and dissenting contentions from the marketplace of ideas, making them seem implausible by their near unavailability. Such cascades occur because legacy media and social media platforms have come to rely overwhelmingly, even exclusively, on federal regulatory agencies’ factual assertions and the pronouncements of a small handful of other favored institutions, such as the World Health Organization, as the gold standard of facts. But availability and unavailability cascades, even when intended in good faith to prevent the spread of disinformation among the public, risk misinforming the very people they purport to inform. A more diverse and vibrant ecosystem of informational institutions would disincentivize the platforms’ and media’s reflexive, cascading reactions to dissenting views.

This second problem — the concentration of informational power — exacerbates the first one: how to counterbalance the executive branch’s power after an emergency. In order for Congress, the courts, and other governing institutions to reassert their own constitutional roles after the initial weeks and months of crisis, they (and the public) need credible sources of information outside the administration itself. An informational ecosystem not overweighted so heavily toward administrative agencies, one that benefits more from the independent contributions of experts in universities, think tanks, journalism, and other public and private institutions, would improve the quality of information that it produces. It would also be less susceptible to the reflexively partisan skepticism that has become endemic in the polarization of modern president-centric government…(More)”.