Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School, wonders whether democracy can survive the internet. The immediate impulse for his question is the election of Donald Trump, who used social media to get around the established institutions, principally the mainstream media, that mediate between candidates and citizens. In particular, Persily fears that fake news circulating in social media empowers demagogues, of which a prime example in his mind no doubt is Donald Trump himself.
The essay is an exemplar of progressivism, because it puts its faith in institutions dominated by progressives to safeguard democracy rather than the Constitution. But to one who is not a progressive, Persily’s fears are unwarranted and his solutions are a source of concern. Begin with fake news. It is not a phenomenon of the internet. Political campaigns in the early republic were vicious because of outrageous and often false charges in the partisan press. Adams was said to be a monarchist focused on establishing a dynasty with his son; Jefferson was accused of being an atheist. He was also alleged to have sired children with one of his slaves. That last bit of dramatic information would have been labelled as fake news at the time by the self-designated great and good—the real fact checkers of any age–, but it appears to have been true.