This idea was brilliantly articulated a couple of years ago by Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor, in an essay that asked “Is the First Amendment obsolete?” Wu pointed out that a state — or, indeed, anyone — that seeks to control information no longer needs bureaucrats or policemen: Instead, the opponents of free speech can drown out ideas and language they don’t like by using robotic tools, fake accounts, or teams of real people operating multiple accounts. They can flood the information space with false, distracting or irrelevant information so that people have trouble understanding what is real and what is fake.
Alternatively, they can use those same robotic tools, fake accounts and dedicated teams to troll individuals with hateful commentary or smears that make them afraid to speak, or difficult to be heard or believed. In the new information world, these are the real threats, both to free speech and to civilized public discourse — even to democracy itself. If we can’t have a public debate because the information space is so polluted, or because people are afraid of the reactions of organized trolls, then we can’t really have meaningful elections anymore, either.