Free Speech and Disinformation: Democracy in the Crosshairs

If there ever was a misnomer, social media is it. When social media first came on the scene in 1997, it was supposed to be an electronic platform for bringing us closer together — a way for friends, family, and like minds to network. As it evolved, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others were going to be the means for elevating our communications.

In many instances it has achieved those ends. Unfortunately, in many instances it has not, and a segment of what transpires in the electronic space could more appropriately be labeled the unsocial media. The unsocial media became a means for saying vicious, venomous or vile things, and for propagating and popularizing falsehoods and fake news.

We provided this assessment in a blog posted in September 2020 on the role social media abuse was playing as a major contributor to the decline of social capital in our American democracy. Approaching two years later, the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX , and former President Barack Obama have made social media and its use a top-of-mind issue for much of the general public.

Musk, who characterizes himself as a “free speech absolutist,” did this beginning with his criticism regarding Twitter’s control of what is on its platform, continued with his acquisition of over 9% of all Twitter stock, followed by his putting together $44 billion to take the company private to ensure that it is a free speech venue.

Obama did it in a keynote address, titled the “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm, he delivered on April 21 at Stanford University. During his speech, Obama stated that “I’m pretty close to a First Amendment (which protects free speech) absolutist.”

Needless to say, the perspectives of these two free speech “absolutists” are not the same. Much can be learned by examining and reflecting on their respective positions. We do so here — beginning with Mr. Musk.

Elon Musk and Free Speech in the Crosshairs

Musk, who reportedly has more than 80 million Twitter followers, is a frequent user of Twitter, posting a variety of comments, ranging from informative to obtuse to somewhat insulting. On March 25, he tweeted: Free speech is essential to democracy. Do you think Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle? Over 2 million people answered the question on Twitter, with slightly over 70% saying “No.”

On April 14, shortly after confirming that he had made an offer to acquire Twitter, Musk appeared at a TED conference in Vancouver for an interview with TED curator Chris Anderson. During that interview, as reported by Rachel Lerman of the Washington Post, when asked why he had decided to buy Twitter, he responded:

Well I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech. Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it’s just really important that people have the, both the reality and perception they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law.

With regard to banning or removing tweets on Twitter, Musk said:

Well, I think we want to err on the, if in doubt, let the speech, let it exist. But if it’s a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist.” But obviously in a case where there’s perhaps a lot of controversy, you’re not necessarily going to promote that tweet. I’m not saying that I have all the answers here.

One answer Musk did have during his TED Interview is that Twitter should open-source its decision-making algorithm and make reasons for the promotion or elimination of selected tweets or tweeters publicly accessible.

Musk’s Twitter initiative precipitated what might be labeled a state of Musk-mania in the media — social and otherwise. The commentary has been voluminous and opinionated.

Writing for The Washington Post before Musk’s offer to acquire Twitter was approved, Elizabeth Dwoskin stated that his view of Twitter was a “utopian ideal …that had ceased to exist a long time ago.” She defends Twitter, explaining:

Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks have spent billions of dollars and employed armies of people to create and enforce policies to reduce hate speech, misinformation, and other toxic communication that degrades public discourse. In doing so, they’ve provoked the ire not only of politicians on the right, who claim these actions amount to censorship, but also people on the left, who say tech companies’ enforcement is both too limited and biased.

Writing for The Daily Beast, Cathy Young focuses on “Twitter’s Free Speech Problem,” noting that “…people concerned about preserving a truly liberal social and political culture have good reasons to push back if Twitter’s policies curb legitimate speech or put an ideological thumb on the scale.” She concludes by asserting:

Part of Twitter’s outsize importance is that it’s the playpen of choice for media and for political activists. It can be a useful tool for news gathering and discussion, but it can also create a faux consensus increasingly adrift from the real world. Too many journalists are too married to Twitter.

If the prospect that this marriage could leave them partnered with Musk is a sobering or even frightening thought, perhaps it’s time for some conscious uncoupling.

In Esquire, Jack Holmes hones in on who Musk is, what Twitter is, and why the combination is not the answer to Twitter’s problem. He observes,

Twitter is not a state entity, but like Facebook or Google, it exercises enough power in the larger marketplace of information that it must be confronted with some of the same concerns in mind. Twitter needs governance from a larger pool of people and perspectives, the kind we seek in a large and diverse democracy, not one guy who happens to be the richest person in the world — and a highly insecure turbonerd with an ax to grind.

Anand Giridharadas’ opinion, expressed in a New York Times guest essay titled “Elon Musk is a Problem Masquerading as a Solution,” aligns with that of Holmes. He begins his essay declaring,

It is a perfect marriage for an age of plutocracy. Twitter with its serious problems and Elon Musk, the embodiment of those problems. What happens when the incarnation of a problem buys the right to decide what the problem is and how to fix it.

To fix the problem, Giridharadas recommends, “We are going to have to legislate real guardrails — perhaps like those created by the European Union’s Digital Services Act — that are too big to entrust democracy to.”

Of all the opinions that we have seen, the most directly critical of Musk comes from Robert Reich, public policy professor at University of California at Berkeley. In a Newsweek op-ed, Reich states,

When billionaires like Elon Musk justify their motives by using “freedom,” beware. They actually seek freedom from accountability. They want to do whatever they please, unconstrained by laws or regulations, shareholders, even consumers.

He compares Musk to Carl Icahn and Michael Milken, the “corporate raiders” of the 70’s and 80’s who acquired and exploited companies, and altered the “free market” by moving it from stakeholder capitalism (where workers and communities had a say) to shareholder capitalism (where the sole goal is shareholder profitability). Reich goes on to state:

Moreover, free speech is just another freedom that turns on wealth. As a practical matter, your ability to be heard turns on the size of the megaphone you have. If you are the wealthiest person in the world, you can buy one of the biggest megaphones in the world called Twitter — and then decide who can use it, what algorithms are going to be, and how it either invites or filters out big lies.

Barack Obama and Disinformation in the Crosshairs

The above is just the tip of the iceberg of the commentary regarding free speech absolutist Elon Musk and Twitter. As might be expected, given the less controversial (boring?) nature of the topic and the thoughtful style of the presenter, there has been much less commentary and reaction to what First Amendment absolutist Barack Obama had to say in his April 21 remarks on democracy and disinformation.

Early on in his address, after talking briefly about the need to strengthen democracy through means such as more inclusive equitable capitalism and reforming our political institutions, Obama advised those in the audience:

And that’s why I’m here today, on Stanford’s campus, in the heart of Silicon Valley, where so much of the digital revolution began, because I’m convinced that right now one of the biggest impediments to doing all this, indeed one of the biggest reasons for democracies weakening, is the profound change that’s taking place in how we communicate and consume information.

After that, he proceeded to provide an analysis of this change. Key points Obama made included the following:

“For more and more of us, search and social media platforms aren’t just our window into the Internet, they serve as our primary source of news and information. No one tells us that the window is blurred, subject to unseen distortions and subtle manipulations. All we see is a constant feed of content where useful factual information and happy diversions and cat videos flow alongside lies, conspiracy theories, junk science, quackery, White supremacist, racist tracts, misogynistic screeds. And over time, we lose our capacity to distinguish between fact, opinion and wholesale fiction. Or maybe we just stop caring.”

“It’s not just that these platforms have — with narrow exceptions — been largely agnostic regarding the kind of information available and connections made on their sites. It’s that in the competition between truth and falsehood, cooperation and conflict, the very design of these platforms seems to be tilting us in the wrong direction.”

“People like Putin and Steve Bannon, for that matter, understand it’s not necessary for people to believe this information in order to weaken democratic institutions. You just have to flood a country’s public square with enough raw sewage.”

Obama followed his analysis with some thoughts and recommendations on what to do because of these almost cataclysmic changes. We will look at those in the final section of this blog. First, let us consider the commentary on the former President’s address.

In general, the commentary on what Obama had to say tended to be more of the traditional news coverage type rather than op-ed pieces. For example:

  • In their Washington Post article, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Eugene Scott outlined the general thrust of Obama’s “lengthy speech.” They highlighted why Obama chose to speak out now on this issue and his call for technology companies to “redesign” themselves to protect the populace from misinformation.
  • Steven Lee Myers, in the Daily Business Briefing for the New York Times, stressed Obama’s call for “greater regulatory oversight of the country’s social media giants.” He noted Obama’s comment that conversation has been about what constitutes disinformation when “The bigger issue is what content these platforms present.”

Ali Breland of Mother Jones and Tucker Carlson of Fox News were not nearly as bland in what they had to say about Obama’s address:

  • Breland was a little cynical in his writing, intimating that maybe this was Obama looking to return to the public spotlight as “the pre-eminent disinformation guy” because of his speech. He cited Prince Harry and Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, as other disinformation guys. In his concluding paragraph, Breland writes, “The disinformation reporter poking fun at other disinformation guys seems rich. But there is good disinformation work to be done. I’m trying to do it.” He went on to say others are too. “And, who knows? Maybe one of the disinformation guys will too.”
  • Carlson was his usual over-the-top and disinformation self in criticizing Obama and what he had to say in his speech. Lee Moran reports in the Huffington Post that after Carlson cited Obama’s comments on Putin, Bannon, and raw sewage, he went on to proclaim, “This guy is not just liberal. In fact, he is not liberal at all. He is a full-blown fascist who hates you and wants to keep you from talking or else.” According to Moran, Carlson added that Obama “wants censorship of anyone who disagrees with him and now he just comes out and says it.”

What to do About Democracy in the Crosshairs

Free speech and disinformation share common ground but they are not the same thing.

If free speech were absolute, one would be able to say anything about anyone or anything anywhere and at any time without any consequence. That is not the case in the United States.

The First Amendment states expressly that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” It does not preclude the private sector or a social media platform from restricting speech.

Through the years, as Dave Roos explains in an article for How Stuff Works, drawing upon data from the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, the Supreme Court and lower courts have identified “types of speech that are unprotected because they either actively break the law, incite others to break the law, or create a potentially violent or unsafe situation.”

Given this context, what are the implications for free speech, disinformation, and democracy if what appears to be Elon Musk’s imminent acquisition of Twitter takes place or Barack Obama’s call to action gains traction?

There has been considerable conjecture and speculation about what Musk, as a free speech advocate, would do with Twitter if he is its owner. Darrell M. West, Vice President of Governance Studies and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, identifies the following five ways Musk might change Twitter’s operations: 1. Weaken content moderation in the name of free speech. 2. Bring Donald Trump back to Twitter. 3.Cozy up to China. 4. Weaken accountability by taking the company private. 5. Encourage space travel and push for AI limits.

Melina Delkic of the New York Times, in her article on Musk’s taking over running Twitter, cited weakening content moderation and reinstating Trump as well. She added: Going open source. Making Twitter more relevant by getting more active “most followed accounts” and, as Musk promised in a tweet, “defeat the spam bots or die trying.”

The consensus of all the commentators we reviewed is that Musk would definitely reduce content moderation and control over what is posted to Twitter. On May 3, the New York Times featured an article on its front page stating that Musk has no firm business plan for taking over Twitter and describing his decision-making style.

The bottom line is that no one knows what is going on in Musk’s head — except for him — and given the erratic and impulsive nature of some of his postings, it is very difficult to predict his intended path forward for Twitter with any accuracy. That is why we agree with Kara Swisher, opinion writer for the New York Times, who concluded her column discussing Musk’s potential revamping of Twitter, by writing, “So, what’s next? So much, and of course, who knows.”

Barack Obama presents a stark contrast to Elon Musk, both in personal style and his thoughts on free speech and disinformation. He made his own position and thoughts on what needed to be done, given the current state of our democracy, clear in his comments at Stanford.

Before suggesting his specific areas for controlling disinformation, Obama described his decision-making framework as follows:

The way I’m going to evaluate any proposal touching on social media and the Internet is whether it strengthens or weakens the prospects for a healthy, inclusive democracy, whether it encourages robust debate and respect for our differences, whether it reinforces rule of law and self-governance, whether it helps us make collective decisions based on the best available information, and whether it recognizes the rights and freedoms and dignity of all our citizens.

Whatever changes contribute to that vision, I’m for. Whatever erodes that vision, I’m against, just so you know.

After that, the proposals that Obama put forward included:

  • Big tech companies themselves doing a better job of controlling disinformation, including improving the standards they use to exclude, rank, and promote information.
  • Revising Section 230 of the United States code, which says that tech companies can’t be held liable for the content posted on their platforms. A smart regulatory structure needs to be put in place, developed through consultation with tech companies, experts, and affected communities.
  • Using social media platforms as vehicles for building more “civic muscle” in the citizenry and civic institutions for a new generation.
  • Setting a better example for the world by leading and coordinating with other democracies to ensure that what’s done through legislation or other means protects the future of democracy in the U.S. and globally.

It should be no surprise that Obama, as a life-long student, and someone who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, did his homework for his talk. On the day before he delivered his address, he posted a ‘Disinformation and Democracy Reading List’ on Medium to share some of the material that had influenced his thinking. That list included reports from The Aspen Institute and the Brennan Center, and writings in publications such as The Atlantic, Wired, and the New York Times.

While Elon Musk and Barack Obama may not be diametrically opposed on the issues of free speech and disinformation, they are definitely not close to one today another in their positions and perspectives.

This may not have been the case in the past. On April 28, Musk sent out a tweet stating “I strongly supported Obama for President, but today’s Democratic Party has been hijacked by extremists. He accented this view via another tweet the same day with stick figures showing him moving from being a center-left leaning Democrat in the past to a center-right leaning Republican today.

Given this Twitter barrage, we seriously doubt that Musk would be interested in Obama’s reading list. We also doubt whether Musk would “embrace the choice” that Obama requested near the end of his speech, which is for all of us to support the exercise of more content moderation.

We are absolutely certain that there is a large group of citizens who would do neither. They are members of what we have labeled the cancer cult.

The cancer cult is comprised of those individuals with extreme dedication to Donald Trump and his personal beliefs and those which he advances on their behalf. As we have written,

The Cancer Cult is destroying our nation’s democracy. It is not killing democracy in one fell swoop. Instead, it is infecting the nation with a cancer that has metastasized across the country.

That cancer has been spreading for more than five years. It is now in stage 3 or 4, and if not cured within this decade could very well be terminal for the system of government the Founders envisioned.

This cancer has had an effect throughout and across the body politic. Its most obvious inflection and infection points include: the promotion of the Big Lie; the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6; suppression of voting rights; an unrestricted emphasis on individual rights and freedoms; and ignoring the pillars of democracy.

Social media is a means the cult uses to acquire and distribute disinformation. Another preferred source for information of all types for the members of the cult is Fox News.

During his speech, Barack Obama cited an “interesting study,” which found that a group of regular Fox News watchers who were paid to watch CNN for a month changed their views on several issues, such as whether voting by mail should be allowed, by as much as ten points. Obama cautioned that this was only one study and it should be taken with a grain of salt.

Based upon our own review of research and other studies, we recommend it should be taken with a grain of salt, pepper, even tabasco sauce, and even that wouldn’t make it edible. As noted in detail in a 2021 blog, the psychographics of the hard-core cult members and staunchest Trump supporters reveal that they are “true authoritarians with “hardened beliefs” against marginalized groups that are irreversible. They advocate for free speech for themselves but not for others.

They are joined by elected officials such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL), who curtailed free speech in education by signing: the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which says that public school teachers can’t instruct on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade; the “Stop Woke Act”, which prevents teaching “critical race theory” in grades K-12; and a bill providing parents with a mechanism they can use to purge texts they find unacceptable from the classroom. DeSantis’ Florida Department of Education has already begun the purge statewide, banning fifty-four math books for allegedly containing critical race theory or actually including social emotional learning texts.

These exclusionary practices, along with the abuse of free speech through dangerous disinformation, place our American democracy in the crosshairs. We are living in an era in which autocrats with a political majority or individuals with the right amount of influence can and will use it to suppress free speech and the individual freedoms of those who think, look, or act different from them. These are indeed dangerous times for our American democracy.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is a large group of citizens of all political persuasions who still want to make social media a better place for securing truthful news and information, and who want to make themselves more knowledgeable and intelligent consumers of what is available online. Their rights must be protected without abridging the right to “responsible” free speech for all.

Barack Obama outlined some of the broad parameters for accomplishing this at Stanford. We would emphasize the focus on regulations and community consciousness.

On April 22, the day after Obama’s speech, the European Union passed a “landmark piece of legislation” called the Digital Service Act. As Adam Satariano reports for the New York Times, the Act forces companies such as Facebook, YouTube and other internet services, “… to set up new policies and procedures to remove flagged speech, terrorist propaganda, and other material deemed as illegal by countries within the European Union.” This Act, which was the product of considerable negotiation among the 27-nation EU bloc, represents an excellent reference point for developing the “strong regulatory structure” for social media that Obama recommended.

For a reference point on community consciousness, we recommend looking backward in time, not across the ocean. In 2009 the Knight Commission issued a report Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age. That Report presents three ambitious objectives:

1. Maximizing the availability of relevant and credible information to all Americans and their communities.

2. Strengthening the capacity of individuals to engage with information.

3. Promoting individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.

The Knight Report presented 15 specific recommendations for accomplishing those objectives. As Donald Trump was entering the White House in January 2017, we stated it was time to resurrect that report.

Five years later, as Trump maintains he should still be in the White House and there are many who believe the Big Lie, we recommend resurrecting it again. Due to the increased political polarization — much of it promoted by Trump and others through the social media, it is more important now than ever.

Fortunately, the community-building to “sustain democracy” is well underway. A National Week of Conversation (NWOC) 2022 kicked off with an event titled “America Talks” in the week of April 24–30.

The NWOC brought together thousands of “Americans of all stripes from across the country in more than 100 online events to listen, extend grace, and discover common interests.” This was the fifth annual NWOC, powered by the #ListenFirst Coalition, a group of more than 400+ civic-related bridging organizations.

While the NWOC is over, the hard work to defeat toxic polarization and bridge divides by building connections is ongoing. For that, there is Citizen Connect, which provides, for concerned citizens who want to make a difference, electronic access to over 500 organizations focused on everything from election reform to civic education to restoring civil dialogue.

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson cautioned the citizens of a very young American democracy:

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.

In 2022, there are those who would use the social media and disinformation to tear this democracy apart. It is essential that those who would work in the communities to bring us together be informed and have their capacity built so they can engage with wholesome discretion and use their free speech to preserve our democracy and make it even stronger in the future.

Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.

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Frank Islam & Ed Crego

Frank Islam & Ed Crego

Frank Islam is an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. Ed Crego is a management consultant. Both are leaders of the 21st century citizenship movement.