Democracy and Misinformation

Misinformation in politics is extremely damaging to democracy, we should focus on practices to curtail it.

Author: Henry Tam

While it is widely accepted that misinformation (malicious rumours, distortions, and downright lies) should not be legally permitted in commercial transactions, public service announcements, teaching in schools, or court proceedings, there is a tendency among many to suggest that in politics, misinformation should not be ruled out by law. This idea has for too long gone unchallenged.

A common defence of political misinformation invokes ‘democracy’ – as though democracy is premised on people being able to deceive others in any way they like. But democracy can only function if people know what options there are, the real differences between them, and that their supporting a particular option would actually lead to it bringing about what they have been told it would. If misinformation is generally allowed to be a part of the process, then what we have is not ‘democracy’ but ‘cheatocracy’ – the rule by those who can deceive others. Politicians who lie about elections being stolen from them and instruct people to reject legitimate electoral outcomes, cannot be allowed to undermine democracy.

Next we encounter claims that ‘freedom of speech’ provides an absolute defence of political misinformation. This is fuelled by the widely held, if quite erroneous, assumption that ‘freedom of speech’ applies without limit. Even US lawmakers, constrained by a constitution that declares under its First Amendment that ‘Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’, have no reservation in backing legal restriction in relation to at least five types of unacceptable communication. These are:

Clearly freedom of speech, the press, or social media for that matter, does not give total licence to the communication of whatever one wants – and there is no reason why misinformation that can damage lives or undermine democracy should be exempt from legal restriction. At this point, we can expect the third line of defence for misinformation in politics, namely, there is allegedly no prospect for it to be ruled illegal because no one can have the expertise and impartiality to determine when it is unacceptable and what action is to be taken. Politicians benefiting from a piece of misinformation being circulated and those damaged by it may well argue against each other, and to give anyone the authority to judge the issue could be setting that person up to be accused of being biased.

But this is when we must not lose sight of how society already draws on the expertise and impartiality of a wide range of people – scientists, analysts, investigators, judges, examiners – to look into and resolve rival claims, including many made in relation to the acceptability of information communicated. There are cases involving people with opposing ideological views or party-political allegiances, but instead of saying that in such cases people can simply go on saying whatever they want (e.g., lie about the safety of a product, spread nasty rumours about an innocent person, make up stories to damage the reputation of a rival company), the law will step in and determine what can or cannot be allowed to continue.

Misinformation in politics is extremely damaging to democracy. Instead of giving a free pass under some misguided notion that, in principle, it should not or could not be regulated, we should focus on developing the practical arrangements to curtail it, as we do in every other aspect of life.

Read more about our Citizen Democracy series here.

For more information on the different categories of irresponsible communication see:

The publisher is Citizen Network Research. Democracy and Misinformation © Henry Tam 2024.

Article | 06.03.24

Constitutional Reform, Neighbourhood Democracy, politics, England, Article

Henry Tam


Director of Question the Powerful

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