Twitter, Facebook and the Internet: The First Amendment’s Wild Frontier

March 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Summary

The Internet, Twitter, Facebook and blogs have created powerful ways to spread influential information or misinformation.  That power invites consideration of ways to prevent it from corrupting the political and legislative process.  This is a revision of my previously published post on this subject.

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For the first time in my life, I have been seriously considering the dangers of the First Amendment.  I am still convinced that freedom of expression is the vital secret of America’s longevity as a democratic republic.  Our right to criticize our institutions makes us the envy of worldwide populations of fearful and frustrated people and serves as valuable evidence that orderly government can survive, even thrive, with that kind of freedom.

Despite these deeply held beliefs, I feel apprehensive because of some recent demonstrations of the immense power that our technology has made available.  Twitter, Facebook and the proliferation of blogs have enabled amateur pamphleteers to command influence and audiences that challenge, and sometimes overwhelm, traditional journalism.

When Rush Limbaugh launched a vicious and obscene attack on Sandra Fluke a few days ago,  Twitter/Facebook/blogs recruited an army of protesters within forty-eight hours strong enough to affect the Republican primary race, produce a personal intervention by the President, intimidate several dozen sponsors of Limbaugh’s show, and keep the media storm going for more than a week.

An even more striking example of modern communication technology is the story of Wael Ghonim, a 29-year-old marketing executive in Dubai, who, while browsing the internet, came upon a picture of Khaled Mohamed Said, a young Egyptian who had been beaten by Egyptian police.  Mr. Ghonim was enraged  He created a Facebook page calling attention to Mr. Said’s fate and spread knowledge of the new page among Egyptians.  This sparked n uprising in Egypt that toppled Hosni Mubarak and contributed to the destabilizing of neighboring Middle East countries.  It is true that frustrations among young Egyptians were so intense that a spark was sufficient to cause a revolution, but it is also true that, absent Mr. Ghonim’s effort, there is no way to tell when or if, those frustrations would have led to the results that have occurred.

Now, of course, because I loath Rush Limbaugh and his cohort of vacuous “dittoheads”, I was pleased when his attack on Ms. Fluke provoked a well deserved reaction.  I was also thrilled at the success of Mr. Ghonim’s reaction to the brutality of Egyptian police.   But because I  also try to consider the likely consequences of cultural and social changes that accompany changes in technology, I began to think about how I would feel if, instead of Limbaugh or Mubarak being targeted, it was Obama or Paul Krugman or Bernie Sanders.

For example, suppose Twitter/Facebook/blogs had been as developed and powerful in 2007 and 2008, as they are now, when Obama’s radical black preacher was ranting about “God damn America”; or when Obama was taped referring to some of his detractors as people “clinging to their faith and their guns”?  Even scarier:  suppose a few internet-savvy political operatives generated a false claim that Obama said or did something shocking and repulsive; and suppose that claim went  “viral” on the internet,  propelled by the super megaphone now available to anyone with a computer or a smart phone?

Defenders of the First Amendment have always replied to fears like these by insisting that the “marketplace of ideas”,  if left alone, would always take care of such shenanigans; that false information would always be discredited by correct information.   [The liberals’ version of Adam Smith’s “unseen hand”.]  I have subscribed to that defense for decades, but the time for such back-and-forth has become so brief; and the category of people capable of spreading information, regardless of its veracity or reliability, has become so large that I wonder whether the “marketplace” remedy can handle the problem.

When I published the first version of these thoughts yesterday, I proposed a “Truth Commisison” to serve as an official agency with authority to declare that factual claims published through social media and the internet were either “false”, “true” or “partly true”.  I have now decided that was a dumb idea.  So I have deleted references to it.  The chances that publishing a dumb idea would do any harm are miniscule, because  I doubt that anyone with the power to act on it would ever see, much less read, my dumb idea.  Still, I am deleting it because I would not like to see such a proposal publicly discussed lest someone might try to implement it.

It was a dumb idea because it was based on the assumption that a distinction could be made between factual statements and statements of opinion.  After about fifty years of preparing and trying jury trials, I have no reasonable explanation for making that assumption.  Every claim, regardless of how patently false, will have some who assert its veracity.  My “Truth Commission” would not be analyzing simple arithmetic problems; they would be choosing who to believe and which evidence was more persuasive.  The outcome would depend, not on the nature of the evidence, but on the biases of the Commission members.  I shudder to think what a “Truth Commision ” appointed by George W. Bush would do.

I could elaborate on the reasons why my proposal was dumb, but it would only add to my embarrassment.

Here is the hard part:  Suppose my fears are well-founded.  So what?  Do I want the First Amendment to be interpreted to permit some kind of government censorship of the internet.  Don’t be absurd!  Do I want those who spread false information punished with fines or jail?  No.  Too Dangerous.  I don’t trust the government with that kind of power.

The only safe answer is the “marketplace” solution.  For that purpose, political campaign organizations should train cadres of volunteer “Minute Men” or “Minute Women” always poised to flood the Twitter and Facebook universe with responses to dirty-tricksters.  Both Twitter and Facebook can easily be used to forward messages to prepared lists (tweets can be re-tweeted; Facebook posts can be “liked” and reposted),

The old “phone-tree” method of spreading political information can thus be put on steroids.  In the 1950’s an organization of right-wing female zealots called “Minute Women” were active in Houston.  They were set up so that one woman had a call list of ten other women,  each of whom had a call list, etc. . They could jam the telephone switchboards of school board members and city officials in twenty-four hours.  They successfully dominated the policies of the Houston ISD for years, with the result that HISD refused to accept any federal money, lest some “communist influence” or “United Nations propaganda” be unleashed on the minds of Houston’s unsuspecting school children.  This nonsense became so disgraceful that Oveta Culp Hobby used her impeccable conservative credentials to denounce and thus discredit the “Minute Women”

By referring to “phone trees”, my friend Dave Richards reminded me that I have demonstrated how out-of-date my thinking is.   As he pointed out, a short documentary posted on YouTube about Kony, a Ugandan warlord who recruits children as soldiers and sex slaves, was viewed by 50 million people within twenty-four hours after it was uploaded.  Obviously, that had nothing to do with “phone trees”.   I am trying to write about the effects of technology about which I have inadequate knowledge.

I know enough, however, to be fearful about its effect on our political system.  The Citizens United Supreme Court decision has enabled unlimited corporate money to finance attack ads of all kinds.  I assume that anti-trust laws don’t apply to collusive arrangements between corporations to pool money to buy political influence.  So there is nothing to prevent Wall Street hedge fund managers and big oil companies from pooling enough money to finance Hollywood-quality productions to run on the web attacking Obama and generating fear about what might happen if he were re-elected.  What effect would fifty million hits on that kind of “documentary” have?  I’m sure Kelsey Grammer, Nick Nolte and Chuck Norris would be glad to star in the movies.

So, while I have doubts about whether the “market place” will be sufficient to avoid a corporate purchase of a presidential election, it is the only solution that doesn’t compound the problem.

Finally, I have posted a new “Pages” item:  A link to a twenty-six page excerpt from Walter Lippmann’s book, “The Public Philosophy”.   To read it, just click on the link and then use the available tools to enlarge the text so that it can be easily read.  Lippmann was a wise man and his ideas, expressed in 1955, still seem relevant to some of our present issues.   I did not agree with all of his ideas, but I read his book when I was twenty-four or five years old.  I could not ignore the force of his arguments.  When I began thinking about the above-stated impact of today’s internet technology, I was reminded of his distrust of “popular opinion” and democracy’s preoccupation with “the people” as policy-makers.  I commend the excerpt to you.  I found a copy of the book on Amazon for about five bucks and I re-read it today.

Lippmann makes the point that policy-making by “the people” doesn’t work.  I think he is right.  It is exciting when popular will is expressed vigorously and causes elected officials to stop and listen.  But another name for “the people” is “mob”.  And an adjective often attached to “mob” is “lynch”.

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