Weaponizing Speech

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a provocative article by Tim Wu, a media historian who teaches at Columbia University, titled “Did Twitter Kill the First Amendment?” He began with the question:

You need not be a media historian to notice that we live in a golden age of press harassment, domestic propaganda and coercive efforts to control political debate. The Trump White House repeatedly seeks to discredit the press, threatens to strip broadcasters of their licenses and calls for the firing of journalists and football players for speaking their minds. A foreign government tries to hack our elections, and journalists and public speakers are regularly attacked by vicious, online troll armies whose aim is to silence opponents.

In this age of “new” censorship and blunt manipulation of political speech, where is the First Amendment?

Where, indeed? As Wu notes, the First Amendment was written for a different set of problems in a very different world, and much of the jurisprudence it has spawned deals with issues far removed from the ones that bedevil us today.

As my students are all too often surprised to learn, the Bill of Rights protects us against government misbehavior–in the case of our right to free speech, the First Amendment prohibits government censorship. For the most part, in this age of Facebook and Twitter and other social media, the censors come from the private sector–or in some cases, from governments other than our own, through various internet platforms.

The Russian government was among the first to recognize that speech itself could be used as a tool of suppression and control. The agents of its “web brigade,” often called the “troll army,” disseminate pro-government news, generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government. The Chinese government has perfected “reverse censorship,” whereby disfavored speech is drowned out by “floods” of distraction or pro-government sentiment. As the journalist Peter Pomerantsev writes, these techniques employ information “in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze.”

It’s really difficult for most Americans to get our heads around this new form of warfare. We understand many of the negative effects of our fragmented and polarized media environment, the ability to live in an information bubble, to “choose our news”–and we recognize the role social media plays in constructing and reinforcing that bubble. It’s harder to visualize how Russia’s infiltration of Facebook and Twitter might have influenced our election.

Wu wants law enforcement to do more to protect journalists from cyber-bullying and threats of violence. And he wants Congress to step in to regulate social media (lots of luck with that in this anti-regulatory age.) For example, he says much too little is being done to protect American politics from foreign attack.

The Russian efforts to use Facebook, YouTube and other social media to influence American politics should compel Congress to act. Social media has as much impact as broadcasting on elections, yet unlike broadcasting it is unregulated and has proved easy to manipulate. At a minimum, new rules should bar social media companies from accepting money for political advertising by foreign governments or their agents. And more aggressive anti-bot laws are needed to fight impersonation of humans for propaganda purposes.

When Trump’s White House uses Twitter to encourage people to punish Trump’s critics — Wu cites the President’s demand that the N.F.L., on pain of tax penalties, censor players — “it is wielding state power to punish disfavored speech. There is precedent for such abuses to be challenged in court.”

It is hard to argue with Wu’s conclusion that

no defensible free-speech tradition accepts harassment and threats as speech, treats foreign propaganda campaigns as legitimate debate or thinks that social-media bots ought to enjoy constitutional protection. A robust and unfiltered debate is one thing; corruption of debate itself is another.

The challenge will be to craft legislation that addresses these unprecedented issues effectively–without inadvertently limiting the protections of the First Amendment.

We have some time to think about this, because the current occupants of both the White House and the Congress are highly unlikely to act. In the meantime, Twitter is the weapon and tweets are the “incoming.”


  1. Seems like often the problem is how people say things, not just what they say. Of course that’s normal folks and I don’t think Trump is normal.

  2. Wu is helping our government censor us even more. The evidence of Russian tampering was used to cloud the evidence of our “democratic party” and media censoring the internet. Twitter removed trending items pointing toward #PodestaEmails and #Wikileaks.

    Google manipulated its search engines and demonetized YouTube to hurt all dissenting voices on the right and left. Once they control the internet, it will be game over for ALL dissenting voices.

    Our government wants journalists employed by Russia Today to register as foreign agents. They are journalists who weren’t allowed to work at Establishment Media because the truth might offend advertisers.

    Noam Chomsky wrote an excellent book about the media being nothing more than propaganda nearly twenty years ago. It’s only gotten worse.

    By the way, which country has military bases in every country outside of its own? Russia or USA?

    Which country funds and equips coups on a regular basis? Russia or USA?

    I wouldn’t worry about Russia or China.

  3. Whether rules of speech were written for a certain age or not, it is going to be extremely difficult to fashion a law or rules and regulations interpreting and implementing laws that somehow see the light of day to rule out speech in any form. Opponents will number among both those who want to clean up present misuse of the freedom and those who don’t (because they want to continue the abuse). It will take a Houdini to shepherd such a new view of speech through ordinary legislative channels and past judicial scrutiny.

    However, we know that “free speech does not include the right to yell Fire! in a crowded theater,” so perhaps if the level of electronic abuse can be equated with Fire! or the fall of the republic unless attended to, some form of altered speech can pass muster though, at best, we can expect busy soapboxes as citizens take to the streets and town halls of America.

  4. Amendment I: “…or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” Abridging means to deprive, shorten, abbreviate, diminish duration or extent of speech; there is no reference to content. Doesn’t this mean Twitter is in violation of the 1st Amendment due to their required limitation on the length of public posting of Tweets? It is a moot point to question to ask if Trump is violating the 1st Amendment with his limitation of members of the press at presidential press conferences and picking and choosing who is allowed to question him? Trump is oblivious to the fact that we have a Constitution for him to violate. Is it a tacit protection of freedom of speech regarding the political yard signs we post and the current “taking a knee” (which I support) by sports figures, flying my Rainbow flag or southerners flying the “Southern Cross” on their private property? My son’s Home Owner’s Association does not allow posting of political yard signs; a violation of freedom of speech.

    “The challenge will be to craft legislation that addresses these unprecedented issues effectively–without inadvertently limiting the protections of the First Amendment.”

    Shouldn’t this challenge have been made when Trump immediately after inauguration, began violating civil and human rights and set his “deconstruction” into action of United States government as it has been basically understood and followed, with expected differences of opinion, by all presidents since the inception of this government? Another moot question?

    Marge’s reference to “…how people say things, not just what they say.” is on target with this current administration. Trump’s every lie is sneering and condescending to all Americans and our former staunch allies and Congress appears to believe they are speaking to a nation of unintelligent people at the bottom of our current caste system. Do we really have time to think about this or should we have taken aim and found a way to make preemptive strikes before this Civil War began in actuality on January 20, 2017?

    Earl Kennedy had a bumper sticker stating, “Doo-Doo Occurs!” We are being buried under Republican doo-doo at an increasing rate as they use their freedom of speech as a weapon against democracy, the Constitution and our civil and human rights. We need to get louder with our freedom of speech and use larger text in printed format to get the attention of voters who aren’t aware they are being silenced.

  5. The United States probably has the most gullible population in the world. We are a test bed for the Russians and their new methods of propaganda. The reason we are so gullible is because we tend to be too lazy to actually do the homework necessary to ferret out truth from B.S.

    Take provocateurs like Ann Coulter who will sling utter nonsense and sell a million books on it. Why would anyone with half a brain read any of her drivel? Because she feeds the very primitive brain regions that center on emotion rather than common sense. As I’ve suggested before, we’re still carrying around cave man brains in a modern, pulsating society.

  6. privacy is also a concern here,many wont beleive that,this has been a ongoing problem on keeping your matters from prying eyes,or someone gaining access to your i phone,etc. keep the numbers to yourself,and always remember,when on site,your IP is visable to whoever wants to watch your key strokes,etc. being on the road i was filled with false,or,where the hell did you get that story? im free from facebook, tweets etc, the cost of allowingmy privacy to be used by a third party sickens me. but its the same game for spreading false information,and getting the public to buy it and move on emotions. I debete others,but last year found myself in a stare at the other persons reply,where the hell did you get that info? ill let you decide. since vietnam era. the 60s we the public has few sources,but believe me, they were news people who prided themselves on being the first lines of history. Im a vietnam era vet, I knew what nam was like, but still joined. I read everyday news about both sides. and kept that tradition on. Im reading from dozen news sites, and its amazing the work and pride these people put out. continuing stories,and the opinions by some.that leave you to think,not react,and gain a foothold on finding out more,before acting. if you vote, always look at both sides,and make a decision. we have agent orange in the WH, hes polluting the minds and lives of Americans, time for a superfund team to clean him out, Muellers report will attest to the russian games, and who. agent orange may be found to be a usefull idiot,and a corprate nerd. its his gang im worried about. Putin is a thug,and we have no buisness even considering his kind in world affairs much less working wall street. thats only led him to the white house. wake up America!

  7. Mike,

    Privacy and the 4th Amendment went out the window with the idiotic, paranoia-steeped Patriot Act. It’s another of the gifts from George W. Bush that just keep on giving.

  8. It seems to me that the media, Twitter and talk radio play much the same roles as newspapers, pamphlets and gossip in the past.

    The first time I remember hearing that “propaganda” drove the American revolution was when I read Walter Isaacson’s “Benjamin Franklin” a few years ago. Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper the “Boston Independent Chronicle” and Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” are key examples. I was born in the late 50s and schooled in the Midwest and was taught about these people and their writings, but don’t recall them being considered propaganda. Just facts.

    But, Vernon, I agree with you. It does seem that we in the US are incredibly gullible. People made, and still make, a lot of money selling snake oil and touting conspiracies.

    Except for the speed of transmission how different is it really today?

  9. We are in a period when the powers that be, both government and corporate, are becoming more fascist – that is, corporations, including great family corporate wealth, assume more power than ever before, inside and alongside governmental power. Free speech, in the classical sense of freedom from government sanctions on speech, is under quiet attack much more from corporate control, than it is from government actions. The revolving door from corporate leaders to government positions, and from corporate lobbyists, allows people in office to come to agreements, or to already be in complete agreement, with corporations, about legal powers allowed corporations.

    We are about to see another transfer of power from “the people” to corporations, with the SEC and the end of open internet. Laws forbidding class action suits, and denial of right to sue over liability issues, are other examples of growing intertwined corporate/government power. Corporations have the right to suppress speech in a number of ways, by controlling their web space, with non-disclosure agreements, and because of their large legal departments and deep pockets, they can endlessly sue any perceived infringement by anyone else. They, and their protected “private” subsidiaries and PACS can publish lies as truth, in merchandising and political areas, usually without running any risk of liable or slander laws, and often without tripping over truth in advertising laws.

    When the powers that be, in government, are pretty much the same people, as the powers that be, in select large corporations, government does not have to worry about going up against the free speech clause at all. Corporations do their work for them, in perfect protected legality. Corporate control of what is said or written in the private sector, is a neat end run around the free speech clause. It’s the tight collusion, even melding, of government and corporate power, that makes it so dangerous to the general public, because it subverts constitutional rights in an entirely legal way.

    This is not new. Laws protecting corporations have been on the books for a long time – but they are increasing, and are being used in ever more inventive ways. The judiciary, until lately, has been slightly more independent. This has been a problem for corporations and their political arm. Pence and trump are rectifying this as fast as they can.

    Who is most interested in control of a population? Powerful politicians. Powerful corporations. Powerful religious leaders. What is the easiest, cheapest, way to achieve control? Propaganda. Engineer laws, and interpret laws in your favor, aided by organized law enforcement and prison system. Tight control over immigration and active deportation of dissidents.

    We are not so different from China, after all. We are a representative democracy, turning into a fascist system. They are a socialist-communist system, turning into a fascist regime. Fascinating, as Spock would say.

  10. It’s very difficult to teach the benefits of the ‘public good’ to those who are eternally into ‘me first, last, and always’.

  11. Joslyn – Your piece offered today was extraordinarily perceptive, especially in its second paragraph. I too have been wondering how far we can go to shield corporations from product liability, where contract trumps tort via the fine print on the side of a can or within a contract (look at credit card language). At the rate things are going, corporate liability for anything will become a thing of the past. It matters little what the substantive law is if one cannot access it due to political machination bought and paid for by the corporate world. Keep up the good work.

  12. This is the speech context I hoped you were going to discuss at Beth-El Zedeck back in September when you spoke there.

  13. I fear some of us have an over-stimulated amygdala when it comes to losing privacy. Privacy is not that important. In fact, it could be argued that ownership of privacy is similar to ownership of property–it really does not exist. The sooner we realize those two concepts are alive and well, the sooner we can live our lives alive and well.

  14. Hollyd asks about the difference between today and earlier times. In addition to speed of transition, there is geography. Gossip is no longer just you and two neighbors talking over the back fence. It now can spread all over the world. And where it used to be that there was, maybe, just one crazy person in a given town thinking a particular crazy thought, now that one crazy person can hook up with many crazy persons and they can get together in a particular place and wreak crazy havoc.

    Another difference is that, when I was growing up, we were taught that gossip was both morally wrong and usually factually incorrect. I doubt anyone teaches that to kids anymore.

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