The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?

An intellectual problem for those who defend freedom of expression

Borough Market

Amid all the concern about ‘Fake News’ and the increasing polarisation in politics, there is a psychological insight that I have seen explained and shared in many forms: when presented with a fact that contradicts a strongly held belief, people often reject the fact and double-down in their belief.

This is the Backfire Effect, a phrase coined by the American academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. Here’s part of the abstract to their 2006 paper ‘When Corrections Fail‘:

Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.


A related disconcerting physchological insight is that people who consider themselves well informed on an issue are less likely to be capable of changing their mind about it than someone who knows they are uninformed and have only formed an opinion based on gut instinct.

People tend not to question any purported facts that already align with their worldview; but they do question any facts that challenge their beliefs, and what they want to believe is true. Moreover, people are reluctant to challenge any fact or opinion that is widely held within the group or tribe with which they they identify.

The presence of tribalism in our politics is well documented and accepted as part of the landscape. In some countries it is accepted that people will simply vote along ethnic lines (eleven years ago I asked whether Sunnis and Shias in Iraq voting along sectarian lines really constituted ‘democracy’). In the United Kingdom we talk nonchalantly of certain areas being ‘tribally’ Labour and express shock when these constituencies vote for another party. Every election cycle brings us vox-pop interviews with people who plan to vote Labour or Tory because their families have done so for generations.

These physchological and psephological realities present a serious problem for anyone who argues for the importance of rational debate and evidence based decision-making in politics.

One might cling to the idea that even if we are all irrational sometimes, we do at least have a rational side that we can nurture. But that too is shaky. In The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, the authors argue that our ability to reason only evolved as a way to justify opinions already formed, and to better argue for those opinions with other people!

Worse, even when people are rational, their arguments still fail. In a blog post published last week, Jon Worth identified the ‘Brexit Bullshit Asymmetry Principle’, pointing out that debunking falsehood, irrationality or stupidity takes up too much time:

The UK government or some Brexiteer does something foolish or short sighted or both, the UK media misses the point when it ought to know better, and a whole network of people swing into action to take it apart.

There are the lawyers … the academics the journalists who do examine what’s actually happening … the economists and stats people … the commentators … the politicians … bloggers and social media nerds like me … And that list is not even close to complete. And we all expend enormous amounts of time with our Brexit responses.

Jon’s original post (which I have had to edit in the quote above) provides links to each of the recommended debunkers. While each of them is incredibly knowledgable and erudite, reading everything they produce is a full time job in itself.

Over in the U.S.A., there is an analogous phalanx of fact-checkers and analysts who produce clear, rational analysis of why each of President Donald Trump’s policy pronouncements and drive-by Twitter statements is false and mendacious. Keeping up with them, and with him, is mentally exhausting.

If there is a ‘marketplace of ideas’ then it is in failure. But perhaps it never existed at all.

The absence of such a ‘marketplace’ may not be of concern to everyone. Politicians have long known that the key to electoral success is to play to the voters emotions, and campaign strategies are based about which emotions to stoke: fear, resentment, security, aspiration, optimism… hope?

But the non-existence of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ is surely a huge intellectual problem for those who defend freedom of expression. The existence and efficacy of such a market is presented as a core moral reason why everyone should be allowed to speak, regardless of the extremity of their views. In Radicals: Outsiders Changing The World (Heinemann, 2017), Jamie Bartlett neatly sets out this idea:

In an ideal liberal society, rational ideas – even dangerous ones – should be allowed to flourish and compete. The theory, at least the liberal’s hopeful theory, is that the good will outcompete the bad in the ‘marketplace of ideas’. With debate and discussion the stronger, more rational arguments win out.

(I should make clear that Bartlett is no Pangloss about how this plays out in reality. He acknowledges that emotion often wins out over reason.)

The ‘marketplace of ideas’ is not the only reason why free speech is important. But it is perhaps the most oft cited reason why a decent, liberal society should allow offensive and dangerous people to speak. If the market is fantasy, then the case for unfettered freedom of expression is severely wounded. In subsequent posts I will try to present some arguments in favour of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ and how it might be rehabilitated.

2 thoughts on “The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?”

  1. Robert is always enlightening on this subject, and I look forward to the follow-ups, but two quick thoughts from a first read. One: There’s several marketplaces of ideas, not one. There’s a Harrods of Ideas and an Aldis and a Waitrose and the corner store run by that nice Somali couple, etc. Shop where you want, if you get served. (Also ‘offensive and dangerous people’ do get neat shelf space in Waitrose of Ideas like extra varieties of virgin olive oil, but over in Poundland of Ideas they’re smashing up the booze aisle, punching the other customers and rifling the tills.)

    Two, there’s the economics of ‘rational choice’: Media’s customers are not ‘rational’ buyers (in the economic sense). Like any buyer, they have varying motivations, are susceptible to advertising, lack product knowledge, are tempted by instant gratification, etc. Also where the ‘product’ is interesting, but not life-essential (as an increasingly superficial news tends to be), if you have a choice between a hi-end fancy product or the ‘just good enough’, most people go for the latter.

    And we are increasingly absorbing news as technology product, via an app, so ‘user experience’ counts too – How smoothly does the app fit your life-space and your interests? Is the user experience challenging or seamless? News gets tested the same way, and challenging, disruptive ideas don’t pass as smoothly. But to borrow from Ben Thompson: I prefer to think that new consumers are more rational than we think, “but that our definition of rationality needs to dramatically expand beyond what is easily quantified”.

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