Category Archives: Free Speech

The Fox Effect

There’s clearly a lot that could be said about former President Trump’s lunch with one full-fledged Neo-Nazi and and one wanna-be Nazi, and most of it has been said or written. I won’t add my two cents to the reactions, except to say that I agree with the two most common ones: Trump’s anti-Semitism is disgusting but hardly a surprise to anyone who follows the news even superficially; and the most telling element of this whole sordid story was the lack of pushback–or even comment–from most Republicans.

Far and away the best comment I’ve come across, and the impetus for this post, was an observation by the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah.

Everyone agrees that Nick Fuentes should not be having dinner with former president Donald Trump. He’s much better suited to be a host on Fox News.

The Daily Show followed up with an absolutely devastating “mash up” of speeches by Nick Fuentes, the Neo-Nazi, and various Fox News personalities, including  its most reliable and prominent bigot, Tucker Carlson. You really need to click through and watch it, and then consider the effect of Fox’s poison on its (largely elderly) audience.

There is a reason President Biden has identified Fox as one of the most destructive forces in the world, and Rupert Murdock as the most dangerous man in America. 

As the linked report shows, four elements make Fox News a” uniquely damaging part of the American news landscape: its strength on the political right, the demonstrated way in which it shapes its viewers’ beliefs, its grip on Republican power and the views of its leadership.”

A national poll conducted by he Washington Post and the University of Maryland looked at where people with varying political ideologies get their news about politics and government. Researchers found that  Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents consulted a reasonably wide variety of essentially mainstream sources. At least three out of ten of that group identified CNN, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, NPR, the Times, and/or The Post as  their main sources of news.

Among most Republicans, though, only two sources were identified: local television and Fox News.

Cable-news viewership skews toward demographics that are more Republican in the first place, and CNN and MSNBC are fighting for a similar base of viewers — viewers who also partake of news from other outlets. Fox News’s strength with 43 percent of the country (the percentage that is Republican or Republican-leaning independent, according to Gallup) gives it a distinct advantage in ratings.

Most Americans don’t care about ratings, of course. So it’s important to put this in a more useful context: Fox News has a larger audience than its competitors — an audience that is largely politically homogeneous. And new research reinforces that this homogeneity is not solely a function of Republicans choosing Fox News but of the network filtering what it shows its viewers.

In other words, Fox chooses what it presents as “news”–and what it omits.

Another recent study paid  a group of regular Fox viewers to watch CNN, then compared  how those viewers understood news events with how a control group of Fox News viewers understood them. The study found “large effects on attitudes and policy preferences about COVID-19” and in “evaluations of Donald Trump and Republican candidates and elected officials.”

Participants in the experiment even grew to recognize the way in which Fox News presents reality: “group participants became more likely to agree that if Donald Trump made a mistake, Fox News would not cover it — i.e., that Fox News engages in partisan coverage filtering.”

Researchers also found that much of what Fox News did show was exaggerated or untrue.

There is a growing body of research confirming that Fox is a propaganda outlet serving the GOP, and not a real news organization–a conclusion brilliantly supported in the Daily Show mash-up.

To belabor the point: where people get their news matters–which explains the considerable concern  generated by Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. In pursuit of his profound misunderstanding of the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause,  Musk has opened the Twitter floodgates–the frequency of racist tweets and hate speech has grown significantly. 

Twitter has thus joined Fox in normalizing bigotry and incivility. Those of us who were already worried that Twitter was shortening attention spans and increasing Americans’ tendency to substitute bumper-sticker memes for thoughtful debate, now see the platform exacerbating racial and religious divisions and reinforcing pernicious stereotypes. 

The social media admonition not to feed the trolls seems appropriate here. In a very real sense, both Fox News and Twitter are America’s trolls. Somehow, we need to figure out how to keep people from feeding them.

Given the undeniable lure of confirmation bias, it won’t be easy.

 

 

Ron “Contempt For The Constitution” DeSantis

Yesterday’s blog post noted that Florida man Ron DeSantis is a favorite of the New Right. A recent judicial opinion, striking down one of his many outrageous attacks on the Constitutional rights of Florida citizens explains why.

A federal judge on Thursday halted a key piece of the “Stop-WOKE” Act touted by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, blocking state officials from enforcing what he called a “positively dystopian” policy restricting how lessons on race and gender can be taught in colleges and universities.

The 138-page order from Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker is being heralded as a major win for campus free speech by the groups who challenged the state.

Among other “dystopian” provisions of DeSantis’ anti-woke law were rules about what university professors could–and could not–say in the classroom. As the Judge noted in his opinion, the law gave the state “unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of ‘freedom.'”

Florida legislators passed DeSantis’ “Individual Freedom Act” earlier this year (a label reminiscent of George W. Bush’s anti-environmental “Blue Skies” Act..). The law prohibits schools and private companies from

leveling guilt or blame to students and employees based on race or sex, takes aim at lessons over issues like “white privilege” by creating new protections for students and workers, including that a person should not be instructed to “feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sex or national origin.

The judge ruled that such policies violate both First Amendment free speech protections and 14th Amendment due-process rights on college campuses.

The law officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints,” wrote Walker. “Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves. This is positively dystopian.”

This particular lawsuit challenged the application of the anti-Woke law to colleges and universities; other pending challenges assert that the law is illegal and unconstitutional when applied to  K-12 schools and to the workplace.

In a column discussing the law and the ruling, Jennifer Rubin noted,

The law, for example, bars discussion of the concept that a person “by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment to achieve diversity, equity, or inclusion.” During oral arguments, when asked if this would bar professors from supporting affirmative action in classroom settings, attorneys for the state government answered, “Your Honor, yes.”

Walker cited that admission, finding:

Thus, Defendants assert the idea of affirmative action is so “repugnant” that instructors can no longer express approval of affirmative action as an idea worthy of merit during class instruction. … What does this mean in practical terms? Assuming the University of Florida Levin College of Law decided to invite Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to speak to a class of law students, she would be unable to offer this poignant reflection about her own lived experience, because it endorses affirmative action.

The law so blatantly violates the concept of free speech that one wonders if remedial constitutional education should be a requirement for Florida officeholders.

No wonder the so-called intellectuals of the New Right see DeSantis as one of their own. He has consistently used his position and the power of the state to suppress the expression of views he dislikes. Rubin reminds readers of DeSantis’ “don’t say gay” law, his statute banning “critical race theory” in schools and his attempt to fire an elected county prosecutor who criticized his abortion policies. To which I would add his attacks on voting rights and his (successful) gerrymandering efforts.

DeSantis has also regularly flexed his power as governor: excluding media from events, taking public proceedings behind closed doors (including the selection of the University of Florida’s president) and exacting revenge on supposedly woke corporations such as Disney.

DeSantis’s contempt for dissent and his crackdown on critics should not be discounted. This is the profile of a constitutional ignoramus, a bully and a strongman. Voters should be forewarned.

DeSantis, Trump and the New Right sure don’t look anything like the libertarian, limited-government GOP I once knew…The only part of Rubin’s critique with which I disagree is her labeling of DeSantis as a “constitutional ignoramus.” It’s much worse than that.

Unlike Trump, who is an ignoramus, DeSantis knows better. He just doesn’t care.

 

Is Design Censorship?

We live in a world where seemingly settled issues are being reframed. A recent, fascinating discussion on the Persuasion podcast focused on the role of social media in spreading both misinformation and what Renee DiResta, the expert being interviewed, labeled “rumors.”

As she explained, using the term “misinformation” (a use to which I plead guilty) isn’t a particularly useful way of framing  the problem we face, because so many of the things that raise people’s hackles aren’t statements of fact; they aren’t falsifiable. And even when they are, even when what was posted or asserted was demonstrably untrue, and is labeled untrue, a lot of people simply won’t believe it is false. As she says, “if you’re in Tribe A, you distrust the media of Tribe B and vice versa. And so even the attempt to correct the misinformation, when it is misinformation, is read with a particular kind of partisan valence. “Is this coming from somebody in my tribe, or is this more manipulation from the bad guys?”

If we aren’t dealing simply in factual inaccuracies or even outright lies, how should we describe the problem?

One of the more useful frameworks for what is happening today is rumors: people are spreading information that can maybe never be verified or falsified, within communities of people who really care about an issue. They spread it amongst themselves to inform their friends and neighbors. There is a kind of altruistic motivation. The platforms find their identity for them based on statistical similarity to other users. Once the network is assembled and people are put into these groups or these follower relationships, the way that information is curated is that when one person sees it, they hit that share button—it’s a rumor, they’re interested, and they want to spread it to the rest of their community. Facts are not really part of the process here. It’s like identity engagement: “this is a thing that I care about, that you should care about, too.” This is rewarmed media theory from the 1960s: the structure of the system perpetuates how the information is going to spread. Social media is just a different type of trajectory, where the audience has real power as participants. That’s something that is fundamentally different from all prior media environments. Not only can you share the rumor, but millions of people can see in aggregate the sharing of that rumor.

Her explanation of how social media algorithms work is worth quoting at length

When you pull up your Twitter feed, there’s “Trends” on the right hand side, and they’re personalized for you. And sometimes there’s a very, very small number of participants in the trend, maybe just a few hundred tweets. But it’s a nudge, it says you are going to be interested in this topic. It’s bait: go click this thing that you have engaged with before that you are probably going to be interested in, and then you will see all of the other people’s tweets about it. Then you engage. And in the act of engagement, you are perpetuating that trend.

Early on, I was paying attention to the anti-vaccine movement. I was a new mom, and I was really interested in what people were saying about this on Facebook. I was kind of horrified by it, to be totally candid. I started following some anti-vaccine groups, and then Facebook began to show me Pizzagate, and then QAnon. I had never typed in Pizzagate, and I had never typed in QAnon. But through the power of collaborative filtering, it understood that if you were an active participant in a conspiracy theory community that fundamentally distrusts the government, you are probably similar to these other people who maybe have a different flavor of the conspiracy. And the recommendation engine didn’t understand what it was doing. It was not a conscious effort. It just said: here’s an active community, you have some similarities, you should go join that active community. Let’s give you this nudge. And that is how a lot of these networks were assembled in the early and mid-2010s.

Then DiResta posed what we used to call the “sixty-four thousand dollar question:”  are changes to the design of an algorithm censorship?

Implicit in that question, of course, is another: what about the original design of an algorithm?  Those mechanisms have been designed  to respond to certain inputs in certain ways, to “nudge” the user to visit X rather than Y.  Is that censorship? And if the answer to either of those questions is “yes,” is the First Amendment implicated?

To say that we are in uncharted waters is an understatement.

 

 

Free Speech For Me But Not For Thee….


Back in the early 1990s, Nat Hentoff wrote a book titled “Free Speech For Me But Not For Thee.” I loved it. 

Hentoff’s point was a popularized version of Law 101: liberty is indivisible.  If the government gets to decide who has a right, it isn’t a right at all–it’s a privilege that can be withdrawn. We all have freedom of speech–even despicable people voicing horrible opinions–or no one really does. (Someone should mention this to Ron DeSantis...)

Hentoff pointed out that those on the political Right–rabid as they are– aren’t the only would-be censors. He pointed to the anti-porn feminists who were active at the time, gays who supported blacklisting Anita Bryant, and various other enforcers of political correctness. When it came to college campuses, he endorsed a comment made by Clark Kerr when he was president of the University of California; Kerr said “The purpose of a university is to make students safe for ideas–not ideas safe for students.”

What triggered my recollection of Hentoff’s rigorous and intellectually-honest approach to free speech was the recent (mis)behavior of Elon Musk. Musk, a strikingly un-self-aware narcissist who likes to style himself a free speech purist, has demonstrated an understanding of free speech principles roughly on par with his understanding of how to manage a social network–that is to say, very little.

As the Daily Beast–among many others— reported, 

Self-described free speech maven Elon Musk discovered a new limit to his principles this week, after a Twitter employee publicly rebutted the billionaire’s explanation for slow app performance in many countries.

“He’s fired,” Musk declared on Monday morning.

According to The New York Times, 

Mr. Musk’s team was asked to comb through messages in Twitter’s internal chat platform and make a list of employees who were insubordinate, people briefed on the plan said. They also sorted through employees’ tweets, looking for criticism. Those deemed rule breakers received emails around 1:30 a.m. Pacific time on Tuesday, notifying them that they were fired, according to emails viewed by The Times…

Elon Musk says he wants free speech, but his track record suggests otherwise
Musk’s free speech advocacy seems to apply mostly to his own speech or that of his fans and promoters.

The firings of critics who made the mistake of exercising what they believed to be their freedom of speech followed significant cuts to Twitter’s contract work force–cuts that followed the wholesale firings upon completion of Musks 44 Billion dollar acquisition of Twitter, and preceded the recent mass resignations.  Many of the contractors who were terminated over the weekend worked on content moderation and data science and were let go without notice.

Pass the popcorn…

The obvious hypocrisy of a thin-skinned, self-styled free speech protector’s devotion to the First Amendment evaporating when someone dares to criticize him prompts a lot of schadenfreude as yet another narcissistic buffoon discovers that he doesn’t know half as much as he thinks he does.

Clearly, some men believe that being rich means they are smarter than everyone else about everything. (America watched for four years while Donald Trump–who has a lot in common with Elon Musk–demonstrated daily that he didn’t know diddly-squat about government and how it worked. ) Now we are watching Musk create chaos with his new toy–for which he vastly overpaid–as he learns the hard way that management of a social media platform involves skills beyond those needed to compose and send a tweet–not to mention compliance with legal regulations of which he was obviously unaware.

I don’t know how Musk came up with an offer of 44 Billion dollars for a platform that had rarely been profitable, but under his management, its finances have already gotten appreciably worse. Thanks to his boneheaded “blue check charge,” imposters have had a field day, and important advertisers have “paused” their spending. (That includes local giant Eli Lilly, after phony Lilly tweets promising free insulin were left up for hours.) Others who aren’t currently advertising on the platform include Macy’s and General Motors. Omnicom Media Group, composed of agencies representing companies like PepsiCo and McDonald’s, urged its clients to halt activity on Twitter. Omicron warns that risks have “risen sharply to a level most would find unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, Musk’s increasingly frantic efforts to avoid bankruptcy and the effective destruction of Twitter are all playing out in public–and it is the public humiliation he is trying to avoid (or at least moderate) by firing employees who dare to criticize or disagree with him.

Too bad Nat Hentoff died in 2017. He’d have had some pretty pithy observations about Elon Musk’s version of free speech. He’d probably even share my popcorn.  

 

The New Gatekeepers?

Speaking of media and information failures…

Any competent historian will confirm that propaganda and misinformation have always been with us. (Opponents of Thomas Jefferson warned that bibles would be burned if he were elected). The difference between that history and the world we now occupy is, of course, the Internet, and its ability to spread mis- and disinformation worldwide with the click of a computer key.

As a recent column in the New York Times put it, the Internet has caused misinformation to metastasize.

The column noted that on July 8, Trump had taken to Truth Social, his pathetic social media platform, to claim that he had really won the 2020 presidential vote in Wisconsin, despite all evidence to the contrary. Barely 8000 people shared that “Truth.” And yet 

Within 48 hours of Mr. Trump’s post, more than one million people saw his claim on at least dozen other sites. It appeared on Facebook and Twitter, from which he has been banished, but also YouTube, Gab, Parler and Telegram, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

The spread of Mr. Trump’s claim illustrates how, ahead of this year’s midterm elections, disinformation has metastasized since experts began raising alarms about the threat. Despite years of efforts by the media, by academics and even by social media companies themselves to address the problem, it is arguably more pervasive and widespread today.

It isn’t just Facebook and Twitter. The number of platforms has proliferated. Some 69 million people have joined those like Parler, Gab, Truth Social, Gettr and Rumble, sites that brag about being “conservative alternatives” to Big Tech.  And even though many of those who have flocked to such platforms have been banned from larger sites, “they continue to spread their views, which often appear in screen shots posted on the sites that barred them.”

When the Internet was in its infancy, I was among those who celebrated the diminished–actually, the obliterated–role of the gatekeeper. Previously, editors at traditional news sources–our local newspapers and television news stations–had decided what was newsworthy, what their audiences needed to know, and imposed certain rules that dictated whether even those chosen stories could be reported. The most important of those rules was verification; could the reporter confirm the accuracy of whatever was being alleged? 

True, the requirement that news be verified slowed down reporting, and often prevented an arguably important story from being published at all. Much depended upon the doggedness of the reporter. But professional journalists– purveyors of that much derided “lame stream” journalism–were gatekeepers preventing the widespread dissemination of unsubstantiated rumors, conspiracies and outright lies.

Today, anyone with a computer and the time to use it can spread a story, whether that story is verifiable or an outright invention. We no longer have gatekeepers. Even the larger and presumably more responsible platforms are intent upon generating “clicks” and increasing “engagement,” the time users spend on their sites. Accuracy is a minor concern, if it is a concern at all.

The Wild West of today’s information environment is enormously dangerous to civil society and democratic self-government. But now, an even more ominous threat looms: Billionaires are buying social media platforms. Elon Musk, currently the world’s richest man, now owns Twitter, “a social media network imbued with so much political capital it could fracture nations.”

It’s a trend years in the making. From the political largess of former Facebook executives like Sheryl Sandberg and Joel Kaplan to the metapolitics of Peter Thiel, tech titans have long adopted an inside/outside playbook for conducting politics by other means.

 But recent developments, including Donald Trump’s investment in Twitter clone Truth Social and Kanye West’s supposed agreement to buy the ailing social network Parler, illustrate how crucial these new technologies have become in politics. More than just communication tools, platforms have become the stage on which politics is played.

The linked article was written by Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and it details the multiple ways in which these billionaires can deploy the power of social media to the detriment of American democracy. As she concludes:

In many ways, the infamous provocateur journalist Andrew Breitbart was right: politics are downstream of culture. To this I’d add that culture is downstream of infrastructure. The politics we get are the ones that sprout from our technology, so we should cultivate a digital public infrastructure that does not rely on the whims of billionaires. If we do not invest in building an online public commons, our speech will only be as free as our hopefully benevolent dictators say it is.

A world in which Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are informational gatekeepers is a dystopian world I don’t want to inhabit.