On Trump and Censorship
Terry H. Schwadron
Aug. 19, 2018
It was at once heartening and bewildering to see a series of tweets by President Trump in favor of non-censored social media.
It was heartening because this is the same president who campaigns incessantly against individuals or media who are vocal in criticizing him. It was bewildering because arguing for freedom of speech is such a contradiction for someone who sees any criticism as “fake news” or worse.
Of course, Trump was not really arguing for a free marketplace of ideas for all — — he wants to protect the right-wing crazies like conspiracy-theorist Alex Jones of InfoWars, to whom Twitter gave a “timeout” period this week, temporarily blocking his fact-resistant tweets denying that school shootings happened in Newtown, Conn., among other things. Apple, Facebook, Spotify and YouTube all barred posts from InfoWars in the last week.
The key Trump tweet among several was this: “Social Media is totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices. . . “Speaking loudly and clearly for the Trump Administration, we won’t let that happen.”
The president did not indicate what stepshis administration might take to prevent private companies from setting up and enforcing terms of service that have allowed them to discipline or shut down accounts for reported abuses. As Huffington Post noted, Trump appeared in these tweets to be equating InfoWars’ claims — including several about Democrats running a child molestation ring out of a Washington pizzeria as well as denying that the Sandy Hook school shootings took place — with his own fake news cries about CNN and other networks.
“Too many voices are being destroyed, some good & some bad, and that cannot be allowed to happen,” he wrote, without naming any specific accounts. “Censorship is a very dangerous thing & absolutely impossible to police,” the president wrote, suggesting that social media companies may be politically motivated in enforcing their rules about hate speech and direct calls for violence.
To me, a guy who spent his working years in journalism, the words are lovely lyrics for a tribute to a ban on censorship. But I have a hard time accepting that Trump actually believes this.
This is a president who has leaned over backwards to have his Federal Communications Commission overturn the rules on net neutrality, which had been guaranteeing a democratic view of who can post and use the Internet. Censorship comes in many flavors, including economic censorship of non-industrial voices.
— This is a president who regularly lies, spins, and describes his policies and recommendations in such incomplete ways as to leave out the actual effect on people. The flip side of censorship is a responsibility of speakers to be aware of the impact of their free speech.
— This is a president who regularly demeans anyone who speaks against his policies, as well as his speech and actions.
— Until the deal fell through this week for business reasons, this is a president who was in full support of politically conservative Sinclair Broadcasting to buy Tronc Inc. radio stations, consolidating fully 70% of talk radio stations in the country. Sinclair distributes editorial talking points for all of its member stations to use. This is not consistent with a call for no censorship.
— This is the same president who has called for stronger libel laws (which are state laws beyond his jurisdiction) to punish any publisher who offends him.
— It is difficult to accept Trump’s credibility on this issue when these tweets upholding free speech for far-right conservatives in the same week as actions to revoke the security credentials of former CIA director John Brennan, and to threaten extending that revocation to a fistful of people whom Trump blames for helping to feed the Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III investigation.
Trump is actually going to court in an attempt to stop Omarossa Manigault Newman from sharing her book and her various secret tapes from the White House. This is not the act of someone who wants to speak loudly from his perch to fight censorship.
It is much more believable that Trump wants to protect speech that Trump finds acceptable, speech by the Alex Jones set that support his presidency and his insulting style.
For decades, the court definitions around free speech have drawn a line that roughly says speech can be limited when it runs afoul of public safety — that you cannot yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. The case law since basically has favored free speech, but adding the element of effect of speech as a counterweight. So, the speaker must be held accountable for the effects that speech may have. For Jones to broadcast that the Sandy Hook shootings never happened may well slander the parents of the dead children — the subject of a current court proceeding.
For the social media titans, the decision to bar Jones and InfoWars, even temporarily, is a watershed event. They have seen themselves as the phone company, allowing any kind of communication and taking responsibility only for the delivery mechanism. Clearly, however, they have become more like traditional publishers, who can be held liable for the use of their distribution. That was the substance of congressional inquiries about Russian use of Facebook, for example, in distributing clearly false election-related information.
Separately Trump bluster from presidential truth is a daily game now. Trump cares little for blocking censorship if it benefits himself. We should not be fooled.