Courtesy Reuters

Michael Ignatieff

In This Review

On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done
By Cass R. Sunstein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009
112 pp. $18.00

A key question about the future is whether new information technologies -- the Internet and its search engines and social media -- will strengthen or weaken democracy. New media are powerful tools of civic engagement in democratic societies, and they will bring new freedoms to closed societies such as China and Iran. At the same time, the perverse effects of these new technologies cannot be ignored. They have become gigantic amplifying devices, raising the volume of false whispers to produce a deafening jeer heard around the world. Instead of creating a shared public space of common discourse, information technology seems to be increasing people's shrillness, malice, and unwillingness to listen to differing opinions. It also empowers anonymous denunciation, removes responsibility from opinion, and places reputations at risk. The speed of the new media forces decision-makers to react instantly, hobbling political judgment and enfeebling deliberation.

Sunstein's On Rumors raises fundamental questions about the troublingly ambiguous impact of social media on the marketplace of democratic ideas. The ancient Greek philosophers warned of Sophists in the public square. The new technologies have given these sophists a megaphone of unparalleled power. It is up to democrats to use the new media to fight back and defend a public square where truth, however inconvenient to one's own prejudices, remains the ultimate arbiter of democratic argument.

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