ON RUMORS: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them and What Can Be Done by Cass R. Sunstein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 100 pages, $18). This slim pamphlet's opening proposition: "Rumors are nearly as old as human history, but with the rise of the Internet, they have become ubiquitous. In fact, we are now awash in them." It's arguably true that the slightest twitch of personal malice by anyone at all has never been more potentially powerful than it is now.
When Marshall McLuhan told us four decades ago that electronic media had created "a global village," he hadn't worked out how the world would work when the nastiest facet of small village life -- the ability to trash reputations in an instant and the disappearance of private dignity -- became a staple in the informational life of the putatively civilized world.
"In the 2008 election," Harvard Law professor Sunstein continues, "many Americans believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim, that he was not born in the United States and that he 'pals around with terrorists.' " Nor is it only wackos who believe patent nonsense.
Sunstein, in trying to epitomize sanity on a subject that's been known to hurt corporations, governments AND individuals, isn't one to believe that "the marketplace of ideas" always works. Sometimes, through sheer emotional grip, "the marketplace can insure that many people accept falsehoods. . . . the problem is serious and pervasive."
So where does he come down? "While old-style censorship is out of the question, it is legitimate for courts to use libel law to protect people -- whether one is or is not in public life -- from falsehoods." Beyond that, we need "an improved understanding of how information works."
Are you ready for a thinker actually recommending a "chilling effect on damaging rumors?" To understate somewhat, this is a provocative little book.
-- Jeff Simon