Category Archives: Free Speech

Free Speech For Those Who Can Afford It

When John Roberts was elevated to the Supreme Court, my concerns weren’t focused on his likely conservative/ideological rigidity. (That was —and remains–my concern with subsequent Justices.) My “reading” of Justice Roberts was that he would instinctively side with power and authority–that he was likely to be pro-government and pro-business elite in situations calling for more searching inquiry into the equities involved.

I am not happy to report that my concerns were well-founded.

Roberts is solicitous when it comes to the rights of American elites. The defense of corporate “free speech” rights in Citizens United required an airy disregard of the foreseeable consequences of that decision for the electoral system. The opinion simply ignored the issue of disproportion, disingenuously equating the free speech rights of everyday citizens with the free speech rights of those who have massive resources at their disposal.

The problem began when the Court equated money with speech, and in Citizens United and several subsequent cases, it has steadily chipped away at McCain-Feingold restrictions meant to level the political playing field.

A few days ago, Len Farber reminded us of the quote from Anatole France that is perfectly applicable here: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

The most recent example of this sanctimonious and dishonest approach to the constitutional right of free speech came in a case brought by the odious Ted Cruz.

The case challenged a law limiting the amount of campaign funds that can be used to repay personal campaign loans to $250,000.  In a decision further weakening campaign finance regulations, the court held that a federal cap on candidates’ use of political contributions after an election to recoup personal loans made to their campaign was unconstitutional.

Roberts wrote the majority opinion, protecting the “free speech” rights of candidates with the resources to lend their campaigns enormous sums. Justice Elena Kagan cut through Roberts’ “free speech” pose to zero in on the real issue.

In her dissenting opinion, Kagan criticized the majority for ruling against a law that she said was meant to combat “a special danger of corruption” aimed at “political contributions that will line a candidate’s own pockets.”

In striking down the law today,” she wrote, “the Court greenlights all the sordid bargains Congress thought right to stop. . . . In allowing those payments to go forward unrestrained, today’s decision can only bring this country’s political system into further disrepute.”

Indeed, she explained, “Repaying a candidate’s loan after he has won election cannot serve the usual purposes of a contribution: The money comes too late to aid in any of his campaign activities. All the money does is enrich the candidate personally at a time when he can return the favor — by a vote, a contract, an appointment. It takes no political genius to see the heightened risk of corruption — the danger of ‘I’ll make you richer and you’ll make me richer’ arrangements between donors and officeholders.”

Even if we give Roberts the benefit of the doubt–if we assume that, from his lofty perch, he really doesn’t understand how the political “real world” works–it’s difficult to understand this decision. (Former Congressman Lee Hamilton used to say that the Supreme Court would benefit greatly from fewer Ivy League graduates and more Justices who had run for county sheriff–people who understood the gritty realities of political life.)

Cruz argued that “by substantially increasing the risk that any candidate loan will never be fully repaid,” the law forces a candidate to think twice before making those loans in the first place. The underlying assumption of his argument, of course, is that “serious”candidates for office are wealthy enough to self-finance their campaigns. This decision allows those wealthy candidates to do so without risking an actual loss of some portion of their funds, because they can now recoup the entire amount from post-election campaign fundraising.

As the Deputy Solicitor argued, the law “targets a practice that has significant corruptive potential.”

“A post-election contributor generally knows which candidate has won the election, and post-election contributions do not further the usual purposes of donating to electoral campaigns,” he said.

Campaign finance watchdogs supported the cap, arguing it is necessary to block undue influence by special interests, particularly because the fundraising would occur once the candidate has become a sitting member of Congress.

As one election law expert commented, “the Court has shown itself not to care very much about the danger of corruption, seeing protecting the First Amendment rights of big donors as more important.”

As an Atlantic  newsletter concluded: campaign-finance regulation in the U.S. has all but vanished.

This decision is more evidence–as if we needed it– of a Court that has lost its way.

 

 

 

 

Keeping Americans “Mad As Hell” 24/7

I don’t regularly read Mother Jones, so I had missed a profoundly important analysis by Kevin Drum that ran in that publication last October. I’m indebted to Gerald Stinson for sharing it.

Drum asks: why are Americans so angry? He notes that the anger is almost entirely political (most of us aren’t mad at our families, friends, plumbers)…

Research suggests that our “national temper tantrum” began in 2000, and Drum methodically investigates–and discards– the usual explanations for that vitriol. He demonstrates that Americans are no more addicted to conspiracy theories than we ever were, for example. (Hofstadter wrote about American paranoia back in 1964, after all.)

He also discounts the role of social media, while acknowledging that–like all new forms of communication–it has had a political effect. When we examine how social media affects what we learn about politics, he writes:

This obviously depends on how much political news we get from social media in the first place, which turns out to be surprisingly little—at least when it comes to actual articles or broadcast segments, not hot takes from your Uncle Bob.

And then there’s that pesky timeline: social media can’t explain something that started 20 years ago.

Drum also makes short shrift of the argument that we’re all mad because everything has gotten worse. It hasn’t, and he shares data showing that Americans’ opinions on virtually every aspect of our communal lives has remained constant–albeit with two very troubling exceptions. One is the rise of White grievance:

White respondents believe that anti-white bias has been steadily increasing. And the American National Election Studies, among other polls, have showed this belief in so-called reverse racism is overwhelmingly driven by white Republicans. This trend starts before 2000, but it’s growing and is an obvious candidate to explain rising white anger—as long as there’s something around to keep it front and center in the minds of white people.

The other is a precipitous collapse of trust in government.

If the “usual suspects” don’t explain our current fears, hatreds and political divisions, what does? Drum’s conclusion: Fox News.

When it debuted in 1996, Fox News was an afterthought in Republican politics. But after switching to a more hardline conservatism in the late ’90s it quickly attracted viewership from more than a third of all Republicans by the early 2000s. And as anyone who’s watched Fox knows, its fundamental message is rage at what liberals are doing to our country. Over the years the specific message has changed with the times—from terrorism to open borders to Benghazi to Christian cake bakers to critical race theory—but it’s always about what liberal politicians are doing to cripple America, usually with a large dose of thinly veiled racism to give it emotional heft.

As Drum notes, rage toward Democrats means more votes for Republicans. Creating that rage is what Fox does.

As far back as 2007 researchers learned that the mere presence of Fox News on a cable system increased Republican vote share by nearly 1 percent. A more recent study estimates that a minuscule 150 seconds per week of watching Fox News can increase the Republican vote share. In a study of real-life impact, researchers found that this means the mere existence of Fox News on a cable system induced somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of non-Republicans to vote for the Republican Party in the 2000 presidential election. A more recent study estimates that Fox News produced a Republican increase of 3.59 points in the 2004 share of the two-party presidential vote and 6.34 points in 2008. That’s impact.

As we saw earlier, the past couple of decades have seen a steady increase in the belief among white people—particularly Republicans—that anti-white bias is a serious problem. Fox News has stoked this fear almost since the beginning, culminating this year in Tucker’s full-throated embrace of the white supremacist “replacement theory” and the seemingly 24/7 campaign against critical race theory and its alleged impact on white schoolkids. This is certainly not all that Fox News does, but it’s a big part of its pitch, and it fits hand in glove with Trump’s appeal to white racism…

Thanks to Fox News, conservative trust in government is so low that Republican partisans can easily believe Democrats have cheated on a mass scale, and white evangelicals in particular are willing to fight with the spirit of someone literally facing Armageddon.

You really need to read the whole, lengthy analysis.

Drum concludes “It is Fox News that has torched the American political system over the past two decades, and it is Fox News that we have to continue to fight.”

But he doesn’t tell us how.

The Story Of Our Age

Jeffrey Goldberg is the editor of the Atlantic, one of the more credible and informative publications I read, and he recently transmitted an email to subscribers titled “Notes from the Editor-in-Chief.” I am going to take the liberty of quoting large portions of that message, because I entirely agree with him about the nature and extent of the danger we face.

Last week, a Michigan congresswoman whose existence had not yet entered the rest of the country’s consciousness credited Donald Trump with having “caught Osama bin Laden,” among other terrorists. It is difficult to forget that night in 2011 when Barack Obama told the world that, on his orders, a team of Navy commandos had killed the al-Qaeda leader. But Representative Lisa McClain, a first-term member of Congress, showed that, with effort, and with a desire to feed Trump’s delusions and maintain her standing among his supporters, anything is possible.

In ordinary times, McClain’s claim would have been mocked and then forgotten. But because these are not ordinary times—these are times in which citizens of the same country live in entirely different information realities—I put her assertion about bin Laden on a kind of watch list. In six months, I worry, we may learn that a provably false claim made by a single unserious congressional backbencher has spread into MAGA America, a place where Barack Obama is believed to be a Kenyan-born Muslim and Donald Trump is thought to be the victim of a coup.

Disinformation is the story of our age. We see it at work in Russia, whose citizens have been led to believe the lies that Ukraine is an aggressor nation and that the Russian army is winning a war against modern-day Nazis. We see it at work in Europe and the Middle East, where conspiracies about hidden hands and occult forces are adopted by those who, in the words of the historian Walter Russell Mead, lack the ability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” We see it weaponized by authoritarians around the globe, for whom democracy, accountability, and transparency pose mortal threats. And we see it, of course, in our own country, in which tens of millions of voters believe that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president because the man he beat in 2020 specializes in sabotaging reality for personal and political gain. This mass delusion has enormous consequences for the future of democracy. As my colleague Yoni Appelbaum has noted, “Democracy depends on the consent of the losers.” Sophisticated, richly funded, technology-enabled disinformation campaigns are providing losers with other options.

The Atlantic has joined with the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, and the two entities staged a conference focusing upon disinformation of all sorts. (The conference is available online.) The Institute of Politics was founded by David Axelrod, who has expressed his opinion that the “future of this country—and of our democratic allies around the world—depends on the ability and willingness of citizens to discern truth from falsehood.”

Goldberg was forthright in admitting to the nature of the challenge disinformation poses for “big-tent” magazines like the Atlantic.  He reiterated his belief that citizens of democracies require  a wide variety of views and opinions, and insisted that

We strive for nonpartisanship at The Atlantic, and we aim to publish independent thinkers and a wide variety of viewpoints. But this most recent period in American history has presented what might be called “both-sides journalism” with serious challenges—challenges that have prevented this magazine from publishing many pro-Trump articles. (After all, our articles must pass through a rigorous fact-checking process.)

Long-term, the emergence of our citizens from the Tower of Babel we currently inhabit will require a co-ordinated effort. My own repeated calls for more and better civics education–leading to greater levels of civic literacy– obviously point to an important part of that effort, but civics education alone cannot address the economic and psychological insecurities that make so many Americans receptive to the lies and hatreds being promoted by would-be autocrats and their enablers.

I don’t know what it would take–what policies could impose at least a minimum of coherence and integrity to the Wild West that is our current information environment without sacrificing the First Amendment– but as Goldberg  and Axelrod clearly understand, figuring that out is obviously job number one.

I’m on vacation without reliable Internet access, but when I get home, I intend to click through and watch that conference….

 

Filters And Lies

I know I carp constantly about the degree to which propaganda and conspiracy theories have displaced credible information, with the result that today’s Americans occupy different realities. It’s easy to blame social media for the reach of disinformation and lies–and social media does bear a significant amount of the blame–but research also illuminates the way propaganda has changed in the era of cable news and the Internet.

That research has identified two modern mechanisms for eroding social trust and constructing alternate realities. One –to quote Steve Bannon’s vulgar description–is to “flood the airways with shit.” In other words, to produce mountains of conflicting “news” along with lots of “shiny objects.” The faux “news” confuses; the shiny objects distract. Citizens don’t know what to believe, what parts of the fire hose of information, disinformation, and outright invention they can trust. They either accept a particular storyline (chosen via confirmation bias) or opt out.

But it isn’t simply the fire hose approach that has eroded our common realities. These days, when people get most of their news from partisan sources, all too often they simply don’t get news that is inconsistent with partisan biases.

A recent, widespread report illustrates that technique. As the lede put it, “The problem with Fox ‘News,’ the cable TV channel, isn’t just what it is — it’s also what it isn’t.” It was a fascinating new study in which arch-conservative Fox TV viewers were paid to watch CNN for a month.

The study, titled “The manifold effects of partisan media on viewers’ beliefs and attitudes: A field experiment with Fox News viewers,” was performed by a pair of political scientists: David Broockman, who teaches at UC-Berkeley, and Joshua Kalla, who teaches at Yale.

 According to Broockman and Kalla, when these Fox viewers watched CNN, they heard about all sorts of things Fox wasn’t telling them. They processed that information. They took it in. They became more knowledgeable about what was really going on in the United States.

The individuals who took part in the experiment didn’t change their political leanings or partisan preferences,  but the experience did alter their perceptions of certain key issues and political candidates.

The study authors differentiated between “traditionally emphasized forms of media influence,” like agenda setting and framing, and what they call “partisan coverage filtering”: the choice to selectively report information about selective topics, based on what’s favorable to the network’s partisan side, and ignore everything else.

The article emphasized what the author called the “real problem” with Fox : its viewers aren’t just manipulated and misinformed — they are left ignorant of much of the news covered by more reputable outlets. Fox gives them a lot of “news-like” information, but they don’t learn about things like Jared Kushner getting two billion dollars from Saudi Arabia.

That conclusion reminded me of another research project a couple of years ago. People were asked to identify their primary news sources and then quizzed on things currently in the news. Those who named Fox as their preferred news source knew less than people who didn’t watch any news from any source.

Lest you think that “filtering” of this sort is a tactic exclusive to the Right, when one of the authors of the research study was interviewed on CNN, he noted that CNN, too, filtered its reporting.

CNN’s Brian Stetler interviewed Joshua Kalla, one of the co-authors of the study, and they had the following exchange:

“You call this partisan coverage filtering,” Stelter told Kalla. “And basically, you’re proving what we’ve sensed for a while, which is that Fox viewers are in the dark about bad news for the GOP.”

Kalla confirmed the Fox News coverage model but put a stop to the victory lap: “On the flip side, CNN engages in this partisan coverage filtering as well… For example, during this time, the Abraham Accords were signed, and these were the agreements where Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signed a major peace agreement. And we see that Fox News covered this really major accomplishment about 15 times more than CNN did. So we established both networks are really engaging in this partisan coverage filtering. It’s not about one side, it’s about the media writ large.”

To be fair, CNN is apparently less culpable in this regard than Fox..

America’s ugly politics is obviously attributable to a lot more than the country’s media environment, even if you throw in the very divisive algorithms used by social media. (After all, the KKK didn’t use the Internet.) But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that both mass media and social media have contributed disproportionately to our loss of a common reality.

As always, the questions are: what policies might make things better? And can we pass those policies once they are identified?

 

A New Way Of Reporting

It’s called “Open source intelligence,” and we’re learning about it thanks to Vladimir Putin and his savage assault on Ukraine.

Here’s the lede from the linked Time Magazine report

The ability of anyone with a phone or laptop to see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfold in almost real time—and to believe what they’re seeing—comes to us thanks to the citizens operating what’s known as open-source intelligence (OSINT). The term is shorthand for the laborious process of verifying video and photographs from Ukraine by checking everything about the images, establishing what they show, and doing all this work out in the open, for all to see.

The article focused on one of the individuals who pioneered this effort,  Eliot Higgins , who had what was described as a “boring office job in the U.K. ” during the war in Syria. In addition to examining social media posts, he also analyzed YouTube videos  that had been uploaded from phone cameras .

Although he had no training as a journalist, he set out to decipher the credibility/accuracy of those uploads by noting things like the serial numbers on munitions, and using online tools like Google Maps. While he was engaged in that exercise, he compared notes with people who were also trying to figure out what was accurate and what wasn’t–and in the process of  blogging about his efforts (under the alias “Brown Moses”)–he built a reputation as an “authority on a war too dangerous to be reported from the ground.”

In 2014 Higgins used Kickstarter to found Bellingcat (the name refers to resourceful mice tying a bell to a cat), a nonprofit, online collective dedicated to “a new field, one that connects journalism and rights advocacy and crime investigation.” Three days after its launch, a Malaysian passenger jet was shot down over the part of Ukraine held by Russian troops. Bellingcat proved the culprit was a Russian surface-to-air missile, by using largely the same array of tools—including Google Earth, the social media posts of Russian soldiers, and the passion of Eastern European drivers for posting dashcam videos—that hundreds of volunteer sleuths are now using to document the Russian invasion of Ukraine in granular detail.

It’s an extraordinary turn of events—and a striking reversal of fortunes for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which in the past deployed disinformation so effectively in concert with its military that NATO refers to “hybrid war.” In Ukraine, however, Russia has been outflanked. Its attempts to establish a pretext for invasion by circulating video evidence of purported “atrocities” by Ukraine were exposed as frauds within hours by Bellingcat, fellow OSINT volunteers, and legacy news media outlets that have picked up reporting tools the open-source crowd hands around.

Higgins has written a book, We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, in which he describes–evidently in great detail–the time-consuming process needed  to produce an airtight case for the conclusions they reach. It was Bellingcat that ultimately assessed responsibility for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17–but it took a full year. In Ukraine, reporting has been much faster, thanks to what Higgins calls parallel team operations.

We’re also then setting up, at the moment, two teams. One is focused on more editorial, journalistic-type investigations, where you can get that stuff out quite quickly after the events have occurred. But another team that runs parallel to that is focused purely on doing investigations for accountability.

The importance of what Bellingcat is doing can be seen via a  CNN report on two videos that Russia circulated  before its invasion. The videos  purported to show  Ukrainian attacks. Both were exposed as frauds  by the online open-source community–and the network also cited its own analysis, using online geolocation methods pioneered by the open-source community, to prove that the videos had actually been filmed behind Russian lines.

The analytic tools developed by Bellingcat and other open-source detectives are now being used by a network composed of hundreds of nonprofessionals–and tools such as geolocation have saved open source analysts hundreds of hours of work. These new tools and the growing network of volunteer sleuths have undermined Russia’s once-masterful ability to spread propaganda. As Higgins says:

This is the first time I’ve really seen our side winning, I guess you could say. The attempts by Russia to frame the conflict and spread disinformation have just collapsed completely. The information coming out from the conflict—verified quickly, and used by the media, used by policymakers and accountability organizations—it’s completely undermined Russia’s efforts to build any kind of narrative around it, and really framed them as the aggressor committing war crimes.

The most important war currently being waged is the war against disinformation and propaganda–and open source intelligence is a new and very welcome weapon.