Deep Fakes, Bots, and Siloed Justices: American Election Law in a Post-Truth World
35 Pages Posted: 11 Jul 2019 Last revised: 29 May 2020
Date Written: July 10, 2019
This Essay forms the basis for the 2019 Richard J. Childress Memorial Lecture, to be delivered at St. Louis University in October 2019.
About a decade or so ago, the major questions in the field of election law were familiar to scholars and centered on the Supreme Court, including the constitutionality of corporate spending limits in candidate campaigns, the constitutionality of the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, and the constitutionality of strict state voter identification laws. While issues related to these cases continue to churn in the courts and remain of vital importance to American democracy, some of today’s most urgent election law questions seem fundamentally different and less Court-centric than those of the past, thanks to rapid technological change during a period of hyperpolarization that has called into question the ability of people to separate truth from falsity.
These questions include: What can be done consistent with the First Amendment and without raising the risk of censorship to ensure that voters can make informed election decisions despite a flood of virally-spread false and misleading speech, audio, and images? How can the United States minimize foreign disinformation campaigns aimed at American elections and attempts to sow social discord via bot armies? How can voters obtain accurate information about who is trying to influence them via social media and other new forms of technology? How can we expect judges to evaluate contested voting rights claims when they, like others, may live in information cocoons in which the one-sided media they consume affects their factual priors? Will voters on the losing end of a close election trust vote totals and election results announced by election officials when voters are bombarded with conspiracy theories about the reliability of voting technology and when foreign adversaries target voting systems to undermine confidence?
This Essay considers election law in the post-truth era, one in which it has become increasingly difficult for voters to separate true from false information relevant to election campaigns. Rapid technological change and the rise of social media have upended the traditional media’s business model and radically changed how people communicate, educate, and persuade. The decline of the traditional media as information intermediaries has transformed—and coarsened—social and political communication, making it easier for misinformation and vitriol to spread. The result? Political campaigns that increasingly take place under conditions of voter mistrust and groupthink, with the potential for foreign interference and domestic political manipulation via new and increasingly sophisticated technological tools. Such dramatic changes raise deep questions about the conditions of electoral legitimacy and threaten to shake the foundation of democratic governance.
Part II of this Essay briefly describes what I mean by the “post-truth” era in politics. Part III examines the effects of the post-truth era on campaign law, arguing for a new law requiring social media to label as “altered” synthetic media, including so-called “deep fakes.” I defend such a law as necessary to support the government’s compelling interest in assuring voters have access to truthful political information. Part IV considers campaign finance law, arguing for campaign disclosure laws requiring those who use online and social media to influence voters, including those using bots and other new technology, to disclose their true identities and the sources and amounts of their spending. Part V considers the difficulty of using courts to adjudicate voting rights claims when there is fundamental disagreement about the basic facts related to issues such as voter fraud in our hyperpolarized, cocooned political environment. The Essay concludes with some thoughts on whether election law is up to the task of dealing with technological change and polarization which threaten some of the key suppositions of how democracy is intended to function, including as an aid to the peaceful transition of power.
Keywords: deep fakes, campaign finance, campaign disclosure, fake news, political polarization, First Amendment
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