Defending Democracy Speaker Series - Part 4
By Carol S Howe
The League of Women Voters of Piedmont held its fifth and final event in their Defending Democracy Series on April 5th, 2022. The talk featured Richard Hasen, Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine and Co-Director of the Fair Elections and Free Speech Center, who spoke about how disinformation undermines fair elections and what can be done about it. This event was cosponsored by eight local Leagues across the country.
Professor Hasen's most recent book, Cheap Speech: How Disinformation Poisons Our Politics - and How to Cure it. (Yale University Press, 2022) uses the expression "cheap speech" to refer to inexpensive, lower value speech that is more likely to contain misinformation and disinformation and which can easily mislead voters about candidates and elections. He explained that the days of having most speech pass through a reliable third party intermediary like a newspaper editor are behind us and that this leads people not only to believe false information but also to doubt true information. This can result in both biased elections and a loss of confidence in the outcomes of those elections.
Hasen recommended a number of changes in laws that could combat cheap speech including improved disclosure laws to better cover social media and laws that would require labeling deep fakes. He cautioned, however, that such laws need to be balanced with First Amendment rights and may run afoul of the Supreme Court's current interpretation of the First Amendment. One law that would be more likely to hold is one that would prohibit speech that shares false information about how, where, and when to vote.
He also recommended social changes that could put pressure on social media companies to improve the quality of information on their platforms, especially as it relates to political information about elections and candidates. For example, there could be established criteria to identify legitimate sources of information and a rebuilding of reliable intermediaries to ensure access to accurate information.
The program ended with a question and answer session with questions from the audience covering topics from micro-targeting used in social media campaign ads, to campaign finance disclosure laws, to the cat and mouse game of detecting deep fakes. When asked by Piedmont League President Lorrel Plimier "what can we do?" Professor Hasen recommended that we remain vigilant and not take democracy for granted, and that we hold election officials accountable to make sure they are holding free, fair and transparent elections. He also challenged us to avoid spreading disinformation; "if something looks too good to be true, it probably is and you should think twice before hitting the share button."
To learn more about cheap speech and its effects on our elections, please watch the recording of this presentation on the LWV of Piedmont YouTube channel.