Times are tough for us Free Speech defenders ….
It’s bad enough that so few Americans understand either the protections or the limitations of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions. Fewer still can distinguish between hate speech and hate crimes. And even lawyers dedicated to the protection of our constitutional right to publicly opine and debate recognize the existence of grey zones.
When the Internet first became ubiquitous, I celebrated this new mechanism for expression. I saw it as a welcome new development in the “marketplace of ideas.” What I didn’t see was its potential for the spread of deliberate propaganda.
Color me disabused.
Steve Bannon coined the phrase that explains what we are seeing: “flooding the zone with shit.” Rather than inventing a story to counter explanations with which one disagrees, the new approach–facilitated by bots and AI– simply produces immense amounts of conflicting and phony “information” which is then uploaded to social media and other sites. The goal is no longer to make people believe “story A” rather than “story B.” The goal is to create a population that no longer knows what to believe.
It’s a tactic that has infected American politics and made governing close to impossible–but it is not a tactic confined to the U.S. It’s global.
A report published last week by the European Commission, the body that governs the European Union, says that when X, the company formerly known as Twitter, got rid of its safety standards, Russian disinformation on the site took off. Lies about Russia’s war against Ukraine spread to at least 165 million people in the E.U. and allied countries like the U.S., and garnered at least 16 billion views. The study found that Instagram, Telegram, and Facebook, all owned by Meta, also spread pro-Kremlin propaganda that uses hate speech and boosts extremists.
The report concluded that “the Kremlin’s ongoing disinformation campaign not only forms an integral part of Russia’s military agenda, but also causes risks to public security, fundamental rights and electoral processes” in the E.U. The report’s conclusions also apply to the U.S., where the far right is working to undermine U.S. support for Ukraine by claiming—falsely—that U.S. aid to Ukraine means the Biden administration is neglecting emergencies at home, like the fires last month in Maui.
Russian operatives famously flooded social media with disinformation to influence the 2016 U.S. election, and by 2022 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned that China had gotten into the act. Today, analyst Clint Watts of Microsoft reported that in the last year, China has honed its ability to generate artificial images that appear to be U.S. voters, using them to stoke “controversy along racial, economic, and ideological lines.” It uses social media accounts to post divisive, AI-created images that attack political figures and iconic U.S. symbols.
Once upon a time, America could depend upon two large oceans to protect us from threats from abroad. Those days are long gone, and our contemporary isolationists–who refuse to understand, for example, how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could affect us–utterly fail to recognize that opposing our new global reality doesn’t make it go away.
The internet makes it possible to deliver disinformation on a scale never previously available–or imagined. And it poses a very real problem for those of us who defend freedom of speech, because most of the proposed “remedies” I’ve seen would make things worse.
This nation’s Founders weren’t naive; they understood that ideas are powerful, and that bad ideas can do real harm. They opted for freedom of speech–defined in our system as freedom from government censorship– because they also recognized that allowing government to decide which ideas could be exchanged would be much more harmful.
I still agree with the Founders’ decision, but even if I didn’t, current communication technology has largely made government control impossible. (I still recall a conversation I had with two students at a Chinese university that had invited me to speak. I asked them about China’s control of the Internet and they laughed, telling me that any “tech savvy” person could evade state controls–and that many did. And that was some 18 years ago.)
At this poiint, we have to depend upon those who manage social media platforms to monitor what their users post, which is why egomaniacs like Elon Musk–who champions a “free speech” he clearly doesn’t understand–are so dangerous.
Ultimately, we will have to depend upon the ability of the public to separate the wheat from the chaff–and the ability to do that requires a level of civic literacy that has thus far eluded us….