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Speaker Series: Nathaniel Persily, Stanford University

  • When: October 3, 2018, 12 pm–1:30 am
  • Where: ABF Woods Conference Room, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive, 4th floor, Lakeside, Chicago, IL 60611

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Can Democracy Survive the Internet?

Following the 2016 Presidential Election and successful Brexit referendum, what had largely  been a utopian appraisal of the Internet's potential for democracy has turned dark and pessimistic.  Hopes that "cheap speech" could enable the less resourced to compete against rich and establishment voices have been replaced with fears of "fake news," bots,  hate speech, and foreign election meddling. In this talk and accompanying paper, Professor Nate Persily of Stanford Law School explains how the most democratic features of the internet are what threaten democracy.  In particular, a central tenet of free speech jurisprudence -- that the free marketplace of ideas is the best test for truth -- has come under great stress in the Internet age.  The velocity, virality and volume of internet communication combines with the privileging of anonymous speech, the self selection into news echo chambers, the power of a few Internet monopolies, and the erosion of state sovereign control of election campaigns to create a speech and electoral environment of unprecedented complexity.  Persily describes the reform options (the "7 Ds of reform") for governments, platforms, and civil society, most of which challenge fundamental notions of freedom of expression:  Deletion or Demotion of content, Disclosure of its provenance, Delay in publication, Dilution of bad content with good, Distraction of audiences, and Deterrence of bad actors. Finally, he explores the challenges to democracy posed by future technological innovation, such as deepfakes, augmented and virtual reality, rising use of encrypted forms of communication, and assistive devices, such as Google Home and Amazon Echo. 

Courtesy of Stanford University

Nathaniel Persily is the James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, with appointments in the departments of Political Science, Communication, and FSI.  Prior to joining Stanford, Professor Persily taught at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and as a visiting professor at Harvard, NYU, Princeton, the University of Amsterdam, and the University of Melbourne. Professor Persily’s scholarship and legal practice focus on American election law or what is sometimes called the “law of democracy,” which addresses issues such as voting rights, political parties, campaign finance, redistricting, and election administration. He has served as a special master or court-appointed expert to craft congressional or legislative districting plans for Georgia, Maryland, Connecticut, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.  He also served as the Senior Research Director for the Presidential Commission on Election Administration. In addition to dozens of articles (many of which have been cited by the Supreme Court) on the legal regulation of political parties, issues surrounding the census and redistricting process, voting rights, and campaign finance reform, Professor Persily is coauthor of the leading election law casebook, The Law of Democracy (Foundation Press, 5th ed., 2016), with Samuel Issacharoff, Pamela Karlan, and Richard Pildes. His current work, for which he has been honored as an Andrew Carnegie Fellow and a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, examines the impact of changing technology on political communication, campaigns, and election administration.  He is also codirector of the Stanford Project on Democracy and the Internet and cofounder of SocialScience.One, which has been tasked to establish an independent commission to examine Facebook's impact on democracy and elections.  He received a B.A. and M.A. in political science from Yale (1992); a J.D. from Stanford (1998) where he was President of the Stanford Law Review, and a Ph.D. in political science from U.C. Berkeley in 2002.

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