Commentary: Protecting Free Speech and Democracy During An Era of Objectively False Information

A QAnon booth in Placerville from October

By David M. Greenwald

Last summer I noted with alarm the rise of objectively false information being posted on social media like Facebook.  People would share articles and memes that were objectively false, but never bothered to fact check and, as a result, it was being passed along like candy.

I am a big believer in free speech but I see this as a challenge for maintaining freedom of speech without government or ultimately corporate intervention and, at the same time, the prevalence of false information represents, in my view, an existential threat to democracy.

The Trump presidency was always a challenge for the traditional media—how to react to the constant gaslighting and use of objectively false narratives and points to elicit emotional responses from his supporters (followers)?  In my view, the media never really got it right.

I would argue Biden probably came closest to the right approach—he simply allowed Trump to keep talking and rarely responded.

By the end of his tenure, Twitter and other social media, which had served as the vehicle for Trump’s assault on democracy and democratic institutions, finally kicked him off their platforms—much to the alarm not only of the right, but of free speech advocates like the ACLU.

Kate Ruane, a senior legislative counsel at the ACLU, said in a statement after the decision to suspend Trump from social media: “For months, President Trump has been using social media platforms to seed doubt about the results of the election and to undermine the will of voters. We understand the desire to permanently suspend him now, but it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions – especially when political realities make those decisions easier.”

Clearly, their concern was less about Trump and more about the ability for Facebook or Twitter to silence less privileged voices.

This represents an existential threat to our society because, while I agree that false information is dangerous, the power to determine and remove that false information is equally dangerous.

It inevitably it comes down to who gets to decide, and the decider is always either the power company or the government itself—neither of which you want to be in role of the decider.

The flip side is just as dangerous as the Washington Post’s account of Pizzagate in yesterday’s paper illustrates.

The article tells the story of Edgar Welch, who, deciding that he could not allow his children to grow up in a world corrupted by evil, went to the Comet Ping Pong, a popular pizzeria in Northwest Washington where “according to the false claims known as Pizzagate, powerful Democrats were abusing children.”

Welch, then a 28-year-old struggling warehouse worker, decided he would rescue them.

As the Post reports through scholar Joan Donavan, “Pizzagate was an early warning of how misinformation can lead to violence.”

Welch walked into the pizzeria on December 4, 2016 (a month after Trump was elected) with a loaded assault rifle.

How the pizzeria became linked in the minds of QAnon followers with a child sex ring is rather strange.

Basically, WikiLeaks released hacked emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.

There was an eight-year-old email where the owner of Comet asked Podesta about a fundraiser at the pizzeria.  Other emails showed Podesta talking about getting “cheese pizza.”

For whatever reason, on Internet message boards, anonymous users falsely claimed that “cheese pizza” was code for “child pornography,” and that Comet was the site of a vast Democratic child sex ring.

This conspiracy was then promoted by far-right media like Alex Jones of InfoWars and amplified by social media accounts and Pizzabate went viral.

This morning op-ed in the NY Times by Thomas Edsall warns that “democracy is weakening right in front of us.”

He warns that a decade ago it was believed that a digital revolution would bring democratization by giving an effective voice to millions where previously unheard, but now the concern is that “online behemoths like Twitter, Google, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook have created a crisis of knowledge — confounding what is true and what is untrue — eroding the foundations of democracy.”

We saw some of this in 2016, where Russia was blamed for a disinformation campaign.  While I might have shrugged this off not that long ago, now it appears all too real.

Edsall quotes Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford who warns “that promise has been replaced by concern that the most democratic features of the internet are, in fact, endangering democracy itself. Democracies pay a price for internet freedom, under this view, in the form of disinformation, hate speech, incitement, and foreign interference in elections.”

He emailed Edsall, stating, “Twitter and Facebook allowed Trump both to get around legacy intermediaries and to manipulate them by setting their agenda. They also provided environments (such as Facebook groups) that have proven conducive to radicalization and mobilization.”

Margaret Roberts, a political scientist at UC San Diego, said, “The difficult part about social media is that the freedom of information online can be weaponized to undermine democracy.”

For her, social media “isn’t inherently pro or anti-democratic, but it gives voice and the power to organize to those who are typically excluded by more mainstream media. In some cases, these voices can be liberalizing, in others illiberal.”

She later quotes extensively from Christopher Bail, a professor of sociology at Duke, and director of the university’s Polarization Lab, who writes in his forthcoming book Breaking the Social Media Prism that a key constituency is made up of those who “feel marginalized, lonely, or disempowered in their off-line lives.”

What is really interesting is he found that “taking people out of their echo chambers made them more polarized—not less…”  Why?  He said “because it exposes them to extremists from the other side who threaten their sense of status.”

Bail said, “People do not carefully review new information about politics when they are exposed to opposing views on social media and adapt their views accordingly.” Instead, he observes, “they experience stepping outside their echo chamber as an attack upon their identity.”

I tend to agree here.  I don’t have a good answer – I am uncomfortable with the Facebook/ Twitter approach of fact-checking.  People  not only aren’t interested in facts, they also view claims made by media entities with suspicion.

I think the post-January 6 approach is fraught with risk too—first it gives too much power to unaccountable tech companies, and it creates a martyrdom complex.

The media’s approach to Trump did not work.  Zealous fact-checks and statements about the accuracy of statements made by Trump actually had the opposite effect as people inclined to believe Trump continued to do so—they just saw the media as biased.

The Biden approach seemed to work better—let Trump suck out the oxygen, hog the spotlight and destroy himself.  Of course, outside of COVID, that might not have worked either.  But then again, COVID didn’t just happen—it brought him down in part because he lacked the ability to focus on solving the problem rather than gaslighting the country.

The bottom line here is that there is no clear answer.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Keith Olsen

    I would argue Biden probably came closest to the right approach – he simply allowed Trump to keep talking and rarely responded.

    Because he was hiding in his basement?  I doubt that Biden had a plan at all, it was more his handlers were trying to hide him.

    they just saw the media as biased.

    Ummm, maybe because it is?

    Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple all are run by people who lean left.  Do you really think they can do a fair and unbiased job of fact checking?  Yes there is false information coming from both the left and right, but I often see right leaning false information being fact checked while left leaning false information is allowed to stand.  Is that a world we want to live in?

    1. Bill Marshall

      Wouldn’t surprise me if a right-wing fact checker (there are some to purport to be just that, on the internet) would report out, “Trump actually won in November 2020, in a landslide“, as a TRUE statement.

      I use rather than the media sources, when in doubt… I detect little, no bias, either way…

      (1/5), four left (pun unintended, as I am a centrist)… I actually think, and am not much into slogans…

    2. Don Shor

      Because he was hiding in his basement?  I doubt that Biden had a plan at all, it was more his handlers were trying to hide him.

      He ran a successful campaign for President while maintaining COVID safety protocols. So he did not get infected and his campaign did not become a source of infection for members, staff, the public, and the candidate himself. Trump did the opposite in every regard.

      The plan was to stay on message and avoid getting dragged into debates about Trump’s endless lies. He did that. It worked.

    3. Dave Hart

      In this election, Trump was running against himself and he lost.  I must say I wasn’t crazy about Biden as President, but the election was all about the disaster of Trump.  As it turns out, Biden looks pretty good so far in terms of handling the pandemic if on no other issue.

      1. Keith Olsen

        Biden looks pretty good so far in terms of handling the pandemic if on no other issue.

        Speaking of lies being put forward Biden and Harris have lied about Trump’s pandemic response several times.

         President Joe Biden dropped a string of untruths on issues both large and small. One of the president’s most egregious falsehoodswas the claim that “we didn’t have [the vaccine] when we came into office.”Vice President Kamala Harris had herself accidentally stumbled into numerous similar gaffes, saying there had been “no national strategy or plan for vaccinations,” that the new administration was “starting from scratch on something that’s been raging for almost an entire year,” and that there “there was no stockpile . . . of vaccines.”

  2. Tia Will

    Eschewing a circus-like environment to draw media attention, rejecting throwing superspreader events during a pandemic, focusing on problems and potential solutions over chants and slogans can only be defined as “hiding” if your intent is to defame devoid of any factual evidence.

  3. Alan Miller

    I view social media as on the level of facts of drunks spewing BS in a bar.  Based on a lot of truth, and a lot of loose, greased lips.  I avoid bars.  Fools put out their BS and listen to the BS of others.  I avoid social media.  Facebook is not a news source.

    while I agree that false information is dangerous, the power to determine and remove that false information is equally dangerous.

    On that, DG, we agree 100%

  4. Edgar Wai

    The normal way of handling this in a platform is to let people define and apply their own filters.

    Say you make an account on Twitter+. Twitter+ would let you apply a filter that you define yourself, or use the same filter that another Twitter+ account has created (and made public).

    By doing that, Twitter+ would not be accused of censorship because it is the user’s choice to self-censor. A user is free to choose any filter or no filter at all.

    Tech companies really don’t have any excuse of not implementing something like this, which is completely technologically achievable. The only reason they don’t want to do it would be that they want you to see the content they want you to see, instead of what you want to see.


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