I recently came upon an article from 2007, Cass Sunstein’s “Neither Hayek nor Habermas”, arguing that “the blogosphere” would have neither as an effective way of gathering knowledge or as a field for consensus-building. There is no price mechanism, so Hayekian principles do not apply. And there is polarization and what would later be called “echo chambers” to prevent real deliberation.
In an era where online “misinformation” is a household concern, this political analysis seems quite prescient. There never was much reason to expect free digital speech to amount to much besides a warped mirror of the public’s preexisting biases.
A problem with both Hayekian and Habermasian theory, when used this way, is the lack of institutional specificity. The free Web is a plurality of interconnected institutions, with content and traffic flowing constantly between differently designed sociotechnical properties. It is an naivete of all forms of liberal thought that useful social structure will arise spontaneously from the interaction between individuals as though through some magnetic force. Rather, social structures precede and condition the very possibility of personhood and discourse in the first place. “Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
Indeed, despite all the noise on the Internet, there are Hayekian accumulations of information wherever there is the institution of the market. One reason why Amazon has become such a compelling force is because of its effective harnessing of reviews on products. Free speech on the Internet has been just fine for the market.
What about for democracy?
If free digital speech has failed to result in valuable political deliberation, it is wrong to fault the social media platforms. Habermas expected that money and power will distort public discourse; a privately-owned social media platform is a manifestation of this distortion. The locus of valuable political deliberation, therefore, must be in specialized public institutions: most notably, those institutions dedicated to legislation and regulation. In other words, it is the legal system that is, at its best, the site of Habermasian discourse. Not Twitter.
If misinformation on the Internet is “a threat to our democracy”, the problem cannot be solved by changing the content moderation policies on commercial social media platforms. The problem can only be solved by fixing those institutions of public relevance where people’s speech acts matter for public policy.
The closest thing to such a Habermasian institution in the Internet today is perhaps the Request for Comments process on adminstrative regulations in the U.S. There, citizens can freely express their policy ideas and those ideas are, when the system is working, moderated and channeled into nuanced changes to policy.
This somewhat obscure and technocratic government function is overshadowed and sometimes overturned by electoral politics in the U.S., which are at this point anything but deliberative. For various reasons concerning the design of electoral and legislative institutions in the U.S., politics is only superficially discursive. It is in fact a power play, a competition over rents. Under such conditions, we would expect “misinformation” to thrive, because public opinion is mostly inconsequential. There is nothing, pragmatically, to incentivize and ground the hard work of deliberation.
It is perhaps interesting to imagine what kind of self-governing institution would deserve this kind of investment of deliberation.
Benthall, Sebastian. “Designing networked publics for communicative action.” Interface 1.1 (2015): 3.
Bruns, Axel. “It’s not the technology, stupid: How the ‘Echo Chamber’and ‘Filter Bubble’metaphors have failed us.” (2019).
Sunstein, Cass R. “Neither Hayek nor Habermas.” Public Choice 134.1-2 (2008): 87-95.