Category Archives: Free Speech

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.

Cheap Speech

Richard Hasen recently had a column–pardon me, a “guest essay”–in the New York Times. Hasen is a pre-eminent scholar of elections and electoral systems; whose most recent book is  “Cheap Speech: How Disinformation Poisons Our Politics — and How to Cure It.”

In the “guest essay,” Hasen joins the scholars and pundits concerned about the negative consequences of so-called “fake news.”

The same information revolution that brought us Netflix, podcasts and the knowledge of the world in our smartphone-gripping hands has also undermined American democracy. There can be no doubt that virally spread political disinformation and delusional invective about stolen, rigged elections are threatening the foundation of our Republic. It’s going to take both legal and political change to bolster that foundation, and it might not be enough.

Hasen uses the term “cheap speech” in two ways. It’s an acknowledgement that the Internet has slashed the cost of promulgating all communications–credible and not. But it is also recognition that the information environment has become increasingly “cheap” in the sense of “favoring speech of little value over speech that is more valuable to voters.”

It is expensive to produce quality journalism but cheap to produce polarizing political “takes” and easily shareable disinformation. The economic model for local newspapers and news gathering has collapsed over the past two decades; from 2000 to 2018, journalists lost jobs faster than coal miners.

Hasen catalogues the various ways in which that collapse has undermined confidence in American institutions, especially government, and he points out that much “fake news” is not mere misinformation. but” deliberately spread disinformation, which can be both politically and financially profitable.”

Reading the essay, I thought back to Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message.”  Hasen says that even if politics in the 1950s had been as polarized as they are today, it is highly unlikely that those division would have triggered the insurrection of Jan. 6th, and equally unlikely that millions of Republicans would believe phony claims about a “stolen” 2020 election. Social media has had a profoundly detrimental effect on democracy.

A democracy cannot function without “losers’ consent,” the idea that those on the wrong side of an election face disappointment but agree that there was a fair vote count. Those who believe the last election was stolen will have fewer compunctions about attempting to steal the next one. They are more likely to threaten election officials, triggering an exodus of competent election officials. They are more likely to see the current government as illegitimate and to refuse to follow government guidance on public health, the environment and other issues crucial to health and safety. They are comparatively likely to see violence as a means of resolving political grievances.

Hasen buttresses his argument with several examples of the ways cheap speech –and weakened political parties–damage democracy. His litany leaves us with a very obvious question: what can we do? Assuming the accuracy of his diagnosis, what is the prescribed treatment? Hasen gives us a list of his preferred fixes:  updating campaign finance laws so that they apply to what is now mostly unregulated political advertising disseminated over the internet; mandating the labeling of deep fakes as “altered;” and tightening the ban on foreign campaign expenditures, among others.

Congress should also make it a crime to lie about when, where and how people vote. A Trump supporter has been charged with targeting voters in 2016 with false messages suggesting that they could vote by text or social media post, but it is not clear if existing law makes such conduct illegal. We also need new laws aimed at limiting microtargeting, the use by campaigns or interest groups of intrusive data collected by social media companies to send political ads, including some misleading ones, sometimes to vulnerable populations.

He also acknowledges that such measures would be a hard sell to today’s Supreme Court, noting that much of the court’s jurisprudence depends upon faith in an arguably outmoded “marketplace of ideas” metaphor, which assumes that the truth will emerge through counter-speech.

If that was ever true in the past, it is not true in the cheap speech era. Today, the clearest danger to American democracy is not government censorship but the loss of voter confidence and competence that arises from the sea of disinformation and vitriol.

He argues that we need to find a way to subsidize real  journalism, especially local journalism, and that journalism bodies should use accreditation methods to signal which content is reliable and which is counterfeit. “Over time and with a lot of effort, we can reestablish greater faith in real journalism, at least for a significant part of the population.”

I would add a requirement that schools teach media literacy.

That said, how much of this is do-able is an open question.

Fraud And Free Speech

A recent report from the Czech Republic made me think of Americans’ widespread misunderstandings about what constitutes the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.

The most widespread misunderstanding, of course, arises because too many Americans don’t realize that the Bill of Rights only limits actions by government. If Walmart refuses to carry your book, your private-sector boss forbids politicking on the job, or your racist Facebook diatribe causes people to unfriend you after characterizing you in unpleasant ways, those aren’t violations of the First Amendment. Those are examples of people exercising their free speech rights.

But about that Czech incident…

Prague Morning reported on the arrest of Jana Peterková. Peterkova became the first person to be convicted for spreading misinformation in the Czech Republic. According to court documents, she allegedly posted a false message claiming that several seniors died in a nursing home in Měšice after receiving COVID vaccinations.

Now, it is important to note that Peterkova posted a totally manufactured story. She wasn’t sharing an opinion, or weighing in on a disputed factual situation. She recounted a purportedly personal conversation with someone she identified as an employee of the nursing home in question, and she claimed that person had told her that “the ‘mainstream media’ were ‘silent’ after several elderly people died after receiving the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.”

However, the identified employee had not worked at the nursing home since May of 2020.

It is also important to acknowledge that the Czech Republic doesn’t have America’s First Amendment, although it has pretty robust protections for free speech. (Wikipedia says “Freedom of speech in the Czech Republic is guaranteed by the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Basic Freedoms, which has the same legal standing as the Czech Constitution. It is the first freedom of the charter’s second division – political rights.”)

One of the conundrums of America’s free speech jurisprudence is locating the line between  speech–communication–and action. Government may not be able to censor my speech, but it definitely has the right to prohibit and punish a number of my possible actions.

And just as communication can occur through action–silent marches, ripping up draft cards, and burning a flag are all actions meant to send a message–wrongful or criminal behaviors can be accomplished via the spoken or written word.

If I call your telephone every fifteen minutes to berate you for something, that behavior is not protected by the First Amendment. It isn’t communication; it’s harassment–and government can punish harassment.

If I criticize you by publishing a book with manufactured accusations, I’ve committed libel. Government can prohibit libel and slander.

If I sell you a cubic zirconium for much more than it’s worth by convincing you it’s a diamond, I’m not exercising my right to free speech; I’m guilty of fraud. Government can punish fraud.

The problem in these situations isn’t that they’re protected speech; it’s evidentiary.

If a police officer overhears two people planning to rob a liquor store, he doesn’t need to wait until they’re at the store with weapons drawn to move against them–but he’d better be able to demonstrate to a court of law that he knew they were serious–that what he overheard was part of the illegal activity–that they weren’t just playing a game, or kidding around.

In the case from the Czech Republic, the evidence was evidently unambiguous. The information Peterkova transmitted was false and she clearly knew it was false, since she’d invented it.

Most of the propaganda being spewed in today’s U.S. is protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Opinions–no matter how nutty–are protected, and far too much of what passes for journalism in this country today, even in the most credible outlets,  is really the venting of opinions. Even though a number of Faux News pundits and their ilk likely know they are dealing in a manufactured reality, proving to a court that they know they are dealing in falsehoods–at least, in the absence of some inadvertent admission– would be impossible.

Overall, the protection offered by the First Amendment is immensely positive. That said, however, the reality of our time is that “censorship” is no longer accomplished by suppression; today, partisans and culture warriors flood the Information environment with enormous amounts of clickbait and propaganda, intended to “drown out” responsible fact-finding, then use the First Amendment as a shield.

it’s a situation that requires a citizenry able to separate wheat from chaff. Civic and news literacy have never been more important.

Unfortunately, the ideologies that motivate the propaganda in the first place also convince partisans that “truth” is information that confirms their initial biases–and increasingly, that illegal and/or illegitimate action–even insurrection– is protected “free speech.”

it isn’t.

 

Sue The SOB’s

I’ve spent a lot of time–and pixels–on what sometimes seems like an insurmountable problem: how do we stop media outlets from blatant political  lying– out-and-out propaganda– without doing irreparable harm to the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment?

The problem is everywhere.

One recent example: a site called Big League Politics reported that Nancy Pelosi purchased a $25 million-dollar oceanfront mansion on Jupiter Island “an elite community with the distinction of its residents possessing the highest per capita income of any municipality in the United States.” Rightwing sites eagerly circulated the report, which actual reporters found to be demonstrably, patently false.

What to do? I’m beginning to think the answer is “sue their socks off!”

According to last Thursday’s New York Times,

Two Georgia election workers who were the targets of a right-wing campaign that falsely claimed they manipulated ballots filed a defamation lawsuit on Thursday against one of the nation’s leading sources of pro-Trump misinformation.

The suit against the right-wing conspiratorial website The Gateway Pundit was filed by Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss, both of whom processed ballots in Atlanta during the 2020 election for the Fulton County elections board. It follows a series of defamation claims filed by elections equipment operators against conservative television operators such as Fox News, Newsmax and One America News.

The allegations had been thoroughly investigated and found to be false, but that didn’t stop the pro-Trump disinformation campaign.The women received death threats and unending harassment from phone calls and text messages. Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss, both of whom are Black, were also subjected to racial slurs.

A far more high-profile series of lawsuits has been filed by manufacturers of election technology.  Dominion Voting Systems has filed defamation lawsuits against Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani and against MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. A federal judge recently ruled that those lawsuits can proceed. The court gave short shrift to claims that the defendants didn’t defame Dominion with their discredited allegations that the company was involved in election fraud that delivered the presidential election to Joe Biden.

Powell and Lindell claimed during a June hearing they could not be sued for defamation because they stood by their fraud claims and Dominion could not prove they made the allegations with “actual malice” knowing that they were false.

The judge noted that the claims were sufficiently fanciful that they demonstrated either knowing falsity or “reckless disregard for the truth”and said “a reasonable juror could conclude” Lindell’s claims of a “vast international conspiracy that is ignored by the government but proven by a spreadsheet on an internet blog is so inherently improbable that only a reckless man would believe it.”

The complaint filed by the two women suing The Gateway Pundit and other right-wing outlets did not specify a dollar amount that would compensate them, but Dominion is asking for billions of dollars in damages. In addition to the defendants listed above, it has also sued Fox News, Newsmax, One America News and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne.

Smartmatic, another election machine provider, has filed several suits as well.

The First Amendment protects citizens against government censorship. It does not protect purveyors of out-and-out lies from lawsuits charging libel or slander. And those lawsuits can be effective, as the New York Times reported in February.

In just a few weeks, lawsuits and legal threats from a pair of obscure election technology companies have achieved what years of advertising boycotts, public pressure campaigns and liberal outrage could not: curbing the flow of misinformation in right-wing media.

Fox Business canceled its highest rated show, “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” on Friday after its host was sued as part of a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit. On Tuesday, the pro-Trump cable channel Newsmax cut off a guest’s rant about rigged voting machines. Fox News, which seldom bows to critics, has run fact-checking segments to debunk its own anchors’ false claims about electoral fraud.

These lawsuits hit propagandists where it counts–in their pocketbooks. Fox News had to pay millions last year to the family of a murdered Democratic National Committee staff member that Fox hosts had falsely accused of leaking emails to WikiLeaks.

Can the tactic be abused? Absolutely–just look at Donald Trump, who  routinely sued anyone who reported on him negatively. Defending against even spurious claims can be expensive; I don’t want to minimize the downside.

That said, I agree with Roberta Kaplan.

This shouldn’t be the way to govern speech in our country,” Ms. Kaplan said. “It’s not an efficient or productive way to promote truth-telling or quality journalistic standards through litigating in court. But I think it’s gotten to the point where the problem is so bad right now there’s virtually no other way to do it.”

Sue the liars.

 

 

Who’s Talking?

I finally got around to reading an article about Facebook by a Professor Scott Galloway, sent to me by a reader. In it, Galloway was considering the various “fixes” that have been suggested in the wake of continuing revelations about the degree to which Facebook and other social media platforms have facilitated America’s divisions.

There have been a number of similar articles, but what Galloway did better than most was explain the origin of Section 230 of the Communications Act in language we non-techie people can understand.

In most industries, the most robust regulator is not a government agency, but a plaintiff’s attorney. If your factory dumps toxic chemicals in the river, you get sued. If the tires you make explode at highway speed, you get sued. Yes, it’s inefficient, but ultimately the threat of lawsuits reduces regulation; it’s a cop that covers a broad beat. Liability encourages businesses to make risk/reward calculations in ways that one-size-fits-all regulations don’t. It creates an algebra of deterrence.

Social media, however, is largely immunized from such suits. A 1996 law, known as “Section 230,” erects a fence around content that is online and provided by someone else. It means I’m not liable for the content of comments on the No Mercy website, Yelp isn’t liable for the content of its user reviews, and Facebook, well, Facebook can pretty much do whatever it wants.

There are increasing calls to repeal or reform 230. It’s instructive to understand this law, and why it remains valuable. When Congress passed it — again, in 1996 — it reasoned online companies were like bookstores or old-fashioned bulletin boards. They were mere distribution channels for other people’s content and shouldn’t be liable for it.

Seems reasonable. So–why the calls for its repeal? Galloway points to the multiple ways in which the information and communication environments have changed since 1996.

In 1996, 16% of Americans had access to the Internet, via a computer tethered to a phone cord. There was no Wi-Fi. No Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or YouTube — not even Friendster or MySpace had been birthed. Amazon sold only books. Section 230 was a fence protecting a garden plot of green shoots and untilled soil.

Today, as he points out, some 3 billion individuals use Facebook, and fifty-seven percent of the world population uses some sort of social media. Those are truly astonishing numbers.

I have previously posted about externalities–the ability of manufacturers and other providers to compete more successfully in the market by “offloading” certain of their costs to society at large. When it comes to social media, Galloway tells us that its externalities have grown as fast as the platforms’ revenues–and thanks to Section 230, society has borne the costs.

In sum, behind the law’s liability shield, tech platforms have morphed from Model UN members to Syria and North Korea. Only these Hermit Kingdoms have more warheads and submarines than all other nations combined.

As he points out, today’s social media has the resources to play by the same rules as other powerful media. Bottom line: We need a new fence. We need to redraw Section 230 so that it that protects society from the harms of social media companies without destroying  their  usefulness or economic vitality.

What we have learned since 1996 is that Facebook and other social media companies are not neutral platforms.  They aren’t bulletin boards. They are rigorously managed– personalized for each user, and actively boosting or suppressing certain content. Galloway calls that “algorithmic amplification” and it didn’t exist in 1996.

There are evidently several bills pending in Congress that purport to address the problem–aiming at the ways in which social media platforms weaponize these algorithms. Such approaches should avoid raising credible concerns about chilling free expression.

Reading the essay gave me some hope that we can deal–eventually–with the social damage being inflicted by social media. It didn’t, however, suggest a way to counter the propaganda spewed daily by Fox News or Sinclair or their clones…