Flooding The Zone

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.

Heather Cox Richardson has summed up the resulting threat:

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….


  1. Like Protective Orders in domestic abuse cases; nothing will be done to protect victims till blood is drawn, and too often not even then. Trump and his Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and other such organizations based on violence drew blood and lives were lost. Yet, the judicial system is unable to uphold arrests, indictments and set trial dates for the leaders of the January 6th Insurrection, an attempted coup to overthrow the United States government, hang our Vice President and kidnap to do God only knows what to our House Speaker due to those weak laws against freedom of speech which was carried out as the world watched. The victims in this case were and remain the American people who continue to be victimized as those following Trump continue to remain too far above Rule of Law to be touched.

    The public does understand the difference between a threat and a violent attack; it seems to be the legal system who is having trouble understanding civil liberty of the public. Yesterday, on the south side of Indianapolis there was a shooting at a yard sale, news because blood was drawn but no one died so the news will die out. It is just taking longer for Trump’s many indictments and those of his allies to gradually be removed from the courts and from our history.

  2. Excellent piece! Russia has always had a disdain for Ukrinee. On youtube you can see a shirt clip if Stalin saying against the crys of Ukranians,”what are they going to do? “ I will take Russias big spoon and eat their grain.” He starved 20 million people, Ukranians, and replaced them with Russians and now like Germany did, Putin will claim that land because Russians live there.
    But when you have weak foreign policy Presidents a dictator can walk all over a country they stated they would defend. When the Ukrainians gave up their nuclear devices, Russia stated it would not invade, and Putin has done exactly the opposite. The real problem with Ukraine is that it has had corruption and our current president has given them an opportunity to use the United States in the same excuse through his own influence peddling.

  3. If Russia is a petro station,then the US must be a bank. It won’t be long until this bank finally fails. All of the arcane minutiae the reader is asked to know will not mean a thing in a real-world downward spiral.

    The histrionics are comical. And,transparent.

  4. CSI detectives search crime scenes for clues, various tidbits left behind by criminals commissioning their misdeeds.

    We learned this from sampling our entertainment choices. Maybe we even stayed after finding interesting entertainment.

    Are you ever curious about why we even turn on screens in our presence?

    We suspect Trump et al of numerous crimes that we are aware of. So does the DoJ. Now they are free to investigate too because he’s not hiding in our house.

    Why do I write this? Apropos? Interesting? Because aging is showing up?


  5. Pete; maybe you are writing this for the same reason I did. I am super pissed at the escalating victimization of our government due to the takeover by the suppressors of humanity, democracy, Rule of Law and the Constitution and legally allowed to maintain their hold on all three branches of government in this nation.

    Two Republican men have managed this is a brief span of time as we ignored the warnings and the previous criminal actions by a Republican president within the highest levels of our government decades ago. McConnell who aided and abetted Trump is seating a few hundred “conservative” judges throughout the federal court system but is now timidly remaining mute. Is he malingering with the recent “health episodes” to maintain Senate support and beyond and gain the pity votes as a shadow form of kissing Trump’s ass while Trump runs rampant over the court system with his voters paying the herds of lawyers? Their control over the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court and federal judicial system as the Executive branch flounders to maintain the progressive presidency over age issues is weakening us in our own eyes and the eyes of the world who once looked to us for leadership..

    Michelle Obama caught a lot of national flack over her comment that she was finally proud to be an American; I understood her then and today I have lost “that lovin’ feelin'” about being an American. But, we mustn’t forget Barack wore that tan suit, swim trunks on an Hawaiian beach and ordered Poupon mustard on his hot dog rather than American. What brand of ketchup did Trump throw on the walls of our White House? We watch daily as he throws shit on the entire judicial system and gets away with it. The American public appears to be opting for the chaff again.

  6. I think It was an article in the The Atlantic, maybe 6 years ago that called this “censorship by obfuscation”, a more polite term for “flooding the zone with shit”.

  7. I have friend that posts lots of Instagram and other short video clips on Facebook. I’ve learned to ignore them. Often, it’s hard to tell the point of such video clips until you’ve watched them all the way through. By then you realize you’ve just wasted 30 seconds of your life. Almost always the message conveyed is garbage, with a slightly twisted point of view using some kind of angry or emotional hook. It is impossible to discern the source or the intent of the author. I other words these short video clips are ripe for being classics disinformation.

    So when somebody tells me that they made a comment based on a Youtube video, they should be asking themselves if they’re up to their eyeballs in that zone that’s flooded with shit.

  8. JoAnn, you left out a #3, in the person of John Boehner, who was McConnell’s all too willing partner, on the House side, until the monster he helped create, in effect, forced him to resign.
    Recent discussion, here, has touched on the difficulty people have in examining propaganda and lies, and the Steve Bannon’s of the world play to this vulnerability.
    Also, let us be clear, there are many people who are predisposed to buy into the propaganda fairy tales, especially when these relate to “Those” people.
    Mr.Musk has clout way beyond what is healthy for the planet, and his autism, which has not stopped him from being so successful, may also be what keeps him from understanding what “Free speech” is really about.
    Zuckerberg seems to be a similar narcissist.
    “Stupidity will be the end of us,” with a little push from the narcissists within!

  9. This country has had yellow journalism and pamphlet political s**t since the early days of the Republic. Lies, distortions and propaganda were bound to arrive with the ideals of “freedom of speech” that so emboldened those first congressional gatherings. This ugly side of politics is the part of public life that so many see as distasteful, and thus they shy away from any kind of public service.
    But what now has caused great alarm is the speed with which that world wide distribution of s**t rolls down on us all. What once was seen as a 24 hour news cycle has become a minute by minute news cycle. The people cannot keep up. They do not have the time to vet every bit of “breaking news”. And they have come to distrust the very media we need to function as a civil society because the owners of that media have traded principle for profit.

  10. We have begun to see the EU put controls on social media. If what they are doing works, it will make it easier for the US to do the same.

  11. Where exactly does one find the truth when most of what we read, watch, and listen to is propaganda?

    How do we know Sheila is telling us the truth? Or HCR?

    Is it blind faith or trust?

    Most of us on this site have a keen sense of detecting bullshit. All the political rhetoric I read on X is propaganda of various persuasions. However, there are thousands of people liking and sharing the posts. Same thing for the political left and right. Both capitalist parties and their media.

    Who cares if idiots spread nonsense to other idiots, and they spread it to others?

    Elon Musk is a technocratic libertarian like Zuckerberg. They believe their algorithms are gods, but they all filter the truth by elevating mainstream media over alternative media. The government has worked with them to hone their censorship via computer formulas.

    The truth gets buried while the nonsense gets elevated. Celebrities receive an immense sort of credit for posting irrelevant posts. “I like Coach ____ or this soda.” “Watch this TV series.”

    You won’t hear why all the UAW plants aren’t striking at once. Why is the union suppressing workers’ rights to strike or work without a contract as long as the oligarchy controls the, meaningful news and info never reach eyeballs?

    If social media platforms were used to organize worker strikes, Facebook or X would swoop in and call a foul to their platform agreement, which nobody reads. The user would receive FB jail.

    This is why none of our platforms accomplish significant social changes…the Nazi collaborators (government and private industry) prevent such an undertaken. Noam Chomsky wrote about the five filters in the 80s.

    What remains is infotainment.

    Also, see Julian Assange and Wikileaks…examples of truth seekers on the internet. They became too powerful. They warned us about Google and the technocrats. We only see a fraction of what’s on the internet.

  12. Unlike the U.S., the European Union has implemented much stronger user privacy controls on social media platforms. Meta, Alphabet/Google, X and other social media platforms contribute vast enough sums to the election campaigns of the members of our Congress and state legislatures, other than California, to ensure that privacy and any other controls to benefit users will not even be discussed.

    When the Facebook whistleblower testified to Congress and provided ten thousand pages of evidence as proof that Zuckerburg and his team consistently lied about their abusive algorithms and so many other abuses of the users, Congress chose not to create any controls on social media. It ended up just being another dog and pony show so they could claim they were looking into it.

  13. Ultimately we have to depend upon the ability of the public to separate the wheat from the chaff, as Sheila notes, and that has been the test all along, even before the internet allowed the Trumps, Chinese, Russians, and other Goebbelesque propagandists to distort and lie to the world language published under the cover of freedom of speech and without apology, and speaking of Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, if he had had the internet available to undermine French and English trust in their respective governments in the late 30s such as we see in today’s internet garbage (aided by Trump-led crimes and destruction of our institutions) Germany might have had only a one-front war with Russia, and world history (if any) might read far differently from the one we are reading today.

    One shudders to think how world history (if any) will read 20 years from now after our government has been stripped of its role and handed it to such as Elon and his fellow oligarchs, unless we stop it, since such abdication necessarily and correctly signals a loss of our already teetering democracy, a necessary prelude to our downfall. We are so near to losing our democracy that we may have to employ what some would call autocratic methods to keep it, starting with imprisoning Trump and his fellow insurrectionists, since by otherwise allowing such Benedict Arnold antics we are contributing to the loss of the greatest asset we hold in common: our democracy which, as I often write, is one of the last few things worth dying for (as many have).

  14. Elmo understands exactly what he’s doing. Remember that he prevents Ukranians from using Skylink to defend themselves on their own land. He has picked a side and knows how to help them, protecting them from attack within Ukraine, which happens to include Crimea. He does the same favors for anyone on the far right who supports authoritarian regimes. That’s no surprise because the largest investors are Saudis. Killing Twitter helps them locate dissidents. It’s one of the most brutal regimes in human history, not unlike North Korea, decapitating or dismembering people it deems to be a threat.

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