Republicans and Other Disinformers: The Dawn of a Free-Speech Recession
In 1860 the great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote:
No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech. It was in their eyes, as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government. Daniel Webster called it a homebred right, a fireside privilege. Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power.
Free speech is one of the bedrock principles of American republicanism, as Douglass points out. The concept that "I may disagree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it" is as ingrained within us as, say, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men and women created by the — you know -- the thing.” So it is odd that free speech, which we adopted as the first of the ten amendments that constituted the Bill of Rights in 1791, would feel endangered roughly 230 years later. In an article in Foreign Affairs titled “The War On Free Speech,” Jacob Mchangama observes that in both the U.S. and globally, “despite the unprecedented ubiquity of speech and information today, the golden age is coming to an end. Today, we are witnessing the dawn of a free-speech recession.’
This free-speech recession has been encroaching for some time, unfortunately. However, in the past, curbing free speech usually came during times of crisis, such as when President Lincoln suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War or when President Wilson enacted the Sedition Act of 1918 during World War I. That we were at war may not fully justify such actions, but at least it makes them somewhat more forgivable. More recently though we have begun seeing, with increasing frequency and directness, attacks on free speech - not to protect the lives of Americans on the battlefield, but to advance the progressive agenda.
Efforts to silence conservative opinion have been in existence for decades. President Clinton, for example, once attempted to silence his critics on talk radio, such as Rush Limbaugh, with a program to train “thousands of operatives to call into radio shows, conduct surveillance of their contents, and secretly disseminate Democratic talking points while posing as ordinary listeners.” There was also an effort around 2009 called the Fairness Doctrine which sought to hinder conservative speech by mandating that radio stations give equal time to opposing views; so if a station aired Limbaugh for three hours, it would then be required to air a liberal host for three hours.
However, the censorship crusade began in earnest with the birth of Antifa, which was created in part in response to the political rise of Donald Trump. Almost immediately after the announcement of his candidacy, it became commonplace to see Trump supporters egged; “milk-shaked;” physically assaulted; chased from campuses, classrooms, and stages; and harassed at rallies. This was especially evident on college campuses where mostly Conservative professors, -- some have been moderate or even left-of-center -- had their classes disrupted and their tenure threatened. Conservative campus speakers like a Ben Shapiro or an Ann Coulter required extra security to speak at a campus, if they were allowed to speak at all.
Conservative rallies were also frequently brutalized. One example that stands out occurred at the University of Berkley in 2017, when a college professor, Eric Clanton, dressed in typical Antifa garb, bashed a student over the head with a bicycle lock. Interestingly, the student was attending a rally for free speech.
Those outside of college are not immune to intimidation tactics, such as a practice called doxxing. This usually involves exposing the private information of someone who wishes to make a contribution to, or speak on behalf of, a cause anonymously, with the intention to make that individual vulnerable to harassment. Although it is in many cases illegal to put someone’s information out there so that they can be bothered by phone calls, emails, or protestors; it is a common occurrence nonetheless.
For example, in 2019, Representative Joaquin Castro (D-TX-20) tweeted out a list of the names and employers of 44 San Antonians who had donated the maximum to President Trump’s reelection campaign. Eleven retirees and one ‘homemaker’ were listed among these private citizens.’
In April of this year, a reporter made public the name, business address, and city of residence of the creator of the popular Twitter account “Libs of TikTok” which essentially aggregates the videos of teachers who boast about how they are influencing children as young as preschoolers into gender confusion. Because this exposure irritated many on the Left, the creator found her name and business address printed in the Washington Post. https://nypost.com/2022/04/19/taylor-lorenz-blasted-for-doxxing-libs-of-tiktok-creator/ A month later a pro-abortion group doxxed the more conservative members of the Supreme Court:
The group Ruth Sent Us published a map containing the home addresses of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Samuel Alito on its website on Thursday morning, along with an announcement that it would carry out a peaceful "walk-by" at the homes of the "six extremist justices" on May 11.
As of this writing, the homes of Justices Roberts, Kavanaugh, and Alito have been set upon by protestors, so much so that there is currently a bipartisan bill in the Senate to provide security details for the justices.
This doxxing, especially combined with such declarations from prominent Democrats like Elizabeth Warren that “We will fight!” and Schumer’s warning to the Justices that they “will pay the price” if they overturned Roe v Wade, is part of a clear pattern of intimidation of Supreme Court. As Senate Leader Mitch McConnell points out,"Trying to scare federal judges into ruling a certain way is far outside the bounds of First Amendment speech or protest.” It is certainly a greater incitement to violence in my view than President Trump’s calling for his supporters to peacefully protest on 1/6. As Steve Scalise, a congressman who was shot by a deranged Democrat in 2017 after he was identified as a Republican, said about doxxing, “This isn’t a game. It’s dangerous, and lives are at stake. I know this firsthand.”
A cousin to doxxing is cancelling; which is to boycott, attempt to prevent the hiring or cause to get fired, or otherwise ruin the career of a celebrity who has expressed a particular opinion. Most typically, the expressed view that warrants someone being cancelled is a view that is unpopular to Progressives. Actress Gina Carano is among the most famous celebrities who were cancelled, which in her case meant losing a role on the Disney+ show “The Mandalorian,” because she expressed views hostile to masking and “trans-friendly pronouns” (posting “beep/bop/boop” as her preferred pronouns), and calling for the end of voter fraud after the last presidential election.
It is, in fact, Twitter, and billionaire Elon Musk’s seemingly imminent purchase of it, that has revealed the startling differing views on speech in our society, especially between conservatives and progressives.
For progressives, speech is a danger. It is treacherous. Without what they consider to be proper regulation, speech would lead to horrors, such as allowing “straight white men” to express views that will inevitably be racist, misogynistic, homophobic, Trump-supporting disinformation.
On her Twitter feed for example Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expressed dread for the “explosion of hate crimes” that she claimed would be forthcoming because “some billionaire with an ego problem unilaterally controls a massive communications platform.” Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted that the deal for Musk to buy Twitter was “dangerous for our democracy” while MSNBC’s Joy Reid argued that Musk is buying Twitter because he “misses the old South Africa in the 80s.”
Political commentator Anand Giridharadas added in the New York Times that “the freedom to speak without restraint by powerful authorities…[would be] freeing Nazis to Nazi, misogynists to bully and harass and doxx and brigade women, even former president Donald Trump to possibly get his Twitter account back.” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/26/opinion/elon-musk-twitter.html The Left’s alarm over President Trump being able to tweet, as well as people who voted for him being able to express their views “without restraint by powerful authorities,” reveals how important Twitter was to the Left for its role in repressing speech that is contrary to the message it wants to convey. This is largely because Twitter, regardless of how connected it seemed to be with the Democratic Party, is a private company, therefore not limited by the First Amendment, and able to censor speech for the government in ways government can not do directly.
As law professor Jonathan Turley writes:
"Pundits and politicians, including President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama, have justified their calls for censorship (or “content moderation” for polite company) by stressing that the First Amendment only applies to the government, not private companies. That distinction allows Obama to declare himself last week to be ‘pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist.’ He did not call himself a ‘free speech absolutist’ because he favors censorship for views that he considers to be ‘lies,’ ‘disinformation,’ or ‘quackery.’"
Many examples of this repression exist, but the most famous and obvious one was its role in silencing the Hunter Biden laptop controversy. In that case, Twitter in November of 2019, just before the presidential election, essentially prevented its users from having access to the NY Post report that the President’s son had left behind a laptop that revealed, among many other sordid things, his and his father’s shady overseas business dealings. The Hunter Laptop was quickly written off by large swaths of the media as Russian disinformation until March of 2022 when it was confirmed as legitimate by the NY Times. But by then Twitter had already done its job hiding the issue of Biden family corruption before the presidential election.
It should also be noted by when news that Musk had bought Twitter broke, we saw reports from numerous prominent conservatives that their number of Twitter followers increased dramatically. In a tweet, Senator Ted Cruz stated, “This is true for conservatives across the board that they're seeing their numbers mind literally went from 1 to 2000 a day, to 50 . . . 60 and 70,000. I've gone from 4.8 million followers to 5.1 million followers in a week. And all it took was Elon buying it.” Conversely, prominent Democrats such as President Obama saw a dramatic decrease in followers.
The sudden rise of followers for conservatives on Twitter and the sudden decrease in followers for Liberals may be explained in part by some conservatives returning to Twitter and some liberals leaving. However such high shifts seem suspiciously Twitter suddenly ending “shadow ban” or other practices that skewed these numbers.
The sort of powerful authority that Giridharadas called for soon became a reality after Musk’s Twitter procurement with the creation of an Orwellian agency entitled the “Disinformation Governance Board.”
Reportedly, this board “is intended to standardize the department's efforts to respond to disinformation that could be connected with violent threats to the U.S. So, if an agency under DHS — like Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency (CISA) — identifies disinformation under its purview, it's the new disinformation board that would come up with the best practices for any DHS agency handling the disinformation.”
The Biden administration's claim that the Disinformation Governance Board will not monitor American citizens seems specious. If its only role is to goal is to monitor foreign disinformation, then why not use the agency already designed to do that? As Senator Ted Cruz stated on his May 6, 2022 podcast “Verdict with Ted Cruz“, “there actually is a longstanding office at the State Department whose statutory mission is to fight disinformation abroad from foreign governments and it’s funded. Congress just funded them $150 million dollars.”
The person who will lead this Disinformation Governance Board is Nina Jankowicz, a liberal partisan who refers to herself as “the Mary Poppins of disinformation.” In her 2020 article for Foreign Affairs, Jankowicz lets the reader know which side of the aisle she sits by referring to Biden as “a bridge builder and big-tent politician” while calling Trump “a candidate who actively disseminates disinformation to mobilize and energize his supporters.”
As the Washington Examiner reports:
The head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board has an extensive history of promoting baseless Trump-Russia collusion claims from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, including allegations now scrutinized by special counsel John Durham.
Nina Jankowicz has cited Christopher Steele as a disinformation expert, made misleading claims about the funding of his dossier, cast doubt on the Hunter Biden laptop story, downplayed Iranian election meddling, and critiqued the Wuhan, China, lab leak hypothesis. Jankowicz also dismissed concerns about Critical Race Theory as a “one of those hot-button issues that the Republicans and other disinformers who are engaged in disinformation for profit, frankly . . . have seized on.”
It is chilling to consider the limitations on conservative speech that will be imposed on us should Nina Jankowicz prove as powerful as her supporters hope and her critics fear. In fact, that she refers to herself as a disinformation expert should be enough to give us pause. As attorney Glenn Greenwald writes, “Indeed, the concept of ‘anti-disinformation expert’ is itself completely fraudulent. This is not a real expertise but rather a concocted title bestowed on propagandists to make them appear more scholarly and apolitical than they are.” https://greenwald.substack.com/p/homeland-securitys-disinformation?s=r
As if to support Greenwald’s observation, Jankowicz is proposing that “verified” people on Twitter like herself have the ability to “essentially start to edit Twitter the same sort of way that Wikipedia is so they can add context to certain tweets.” So if you are a right-wing loon like myself and you tweet “life begins at conception,“ “All life matters,” or “the Bidens are corrupt,” the people Jankowicz considers “trustworthy” would be able to arbitrarily change or add a disclaimer to your tweet without your permission.
Liberals are already signaling how powerful they would like the Disinformation Governance Board by how they are encouraging European governments to control speech within their boards. Hillary Clinton for example, whose campaign is responsible for the epic disinformation campaign against President Trump https://nypost.com/2021/09/16/fresh-proof-russiagate-scandal-was-created-by-hillary-clinton-campaign/ shamelessly took to Twitter on April 21, 2022, to write: “For too long, tech platforms have amplified disinformation and extremism with no accountability. The EU is poised to do something about it. I urge our transatlantic allies to push the Digital Services Act across the finish line and bolster global democracy before it's too late.”
The objective of the Digital Services Act is to compel tech “companies to more aggressively police their platforms for illicit content or risk billions of dollars in fines.” Given how often the terms “illicit content” and “disinformation” are used to “disguise ideological views on behalf of state and corporate power centers as Official Truth,” as Greenwald put it, why should we trust that an American version of the Digital Services Act won’t be yet another means by which the left can silence their conservative critics?
The view of the right on free speech is well encapsulated by Musk’s Twitter feed where he wrote “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy.”
He also tweeted “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” This is important because while disinformation or false information is indeed inevitable, the best route to eliminate this sort of information is not from a partisan governance board delivering truth as if they were carrying tablets down from Mount Sinai. Rather, it is to have one’s ideas and beliefs presented to one’s peers, or the public, for review, scrutiny and debate. This is true whether one is submitting a paper to an academic journal or is publishing a report about Biden family corruption to the New York Post.
Free speech is under continuing assault from our own government, especially through its alliance with social media companies with which it works in concert. Increasingly Americans are becoming mindful about what they say, to whom they donate, and what political allegiances they display.
President Biden, as Professor Turley argues, is already “arguably the most anti-free speech president since John Adams,” and his record on speech will continue to worsen unless the American public stands up to him.
As George Orwell once wrote, “If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it.”