Making Up Political People: How Social Media Create the Ideals, Definitions, and Probabilities of Political Speech
Especially in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there is increasing debate about how and why to regulate political speech posted on social media platforms, and whether such regulation is possible or desirable. Initially, such debates focused on the concept, production, and circulation of “fake news.”1 As politicians like President Trump co-opted the term to attack journalists and insulate themselves from criticism2, and as academics argued against the term’s imprecision3, historical complexity4, and political weaponization5, this term fell out offavor. In lieu of discussing “fakenews,” scholars and public commentators gradually began talking about the role that “misinformation,” “disinformation,” or “computational propaganda” play in public discourse.6
Rarer, though, in debates about how to name and trace this problematic class of speech are more fundamental conversations about what type of public life is presumed or desired. More precisely: What types of public life does such a focus on truth or falsity take for granted, and what type of public life is created by focusing on the truth or falsity of information? While many scholars assume the existence of “fake news” as a powerful political phenomenon and focus on its spread, effects, and defenses7, others have questioned the “myth of the attentive public” that fake news ostensibly harms, reminded us of persuasion campaigns’ minimal effects8, and questioned why scholars seem to be focusing on questions of information quality and circulation instead of longstanding political issues like race, class, and identity.9
Associate Professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; Ph.D., Stanford University, 2011.