Free speech and responsibility
The avalanch of the final two weeks of the Trump Presidency will cause more damage. Events will no doubt affect my thinking.
But in the immediate aftermath of the President’s call to his supporters, their riot and seizure of the Capitol building, and their interruption of the sacred task of a democracy — counting the vote — I feel compelled to put my thoughts down.
I’m alarmed at the success of conspiracy theories. Those beliefs are the raw fuel on which all of the madness of Trumpism runs. If people are capable of believing in alien overlords, lizard people, satanic cults of pedophiles, it absolutely stands to reason that they could believe Hugo Chavez stole the Presidential election, but didn’t touch any Congressional races, from beyond the grave.
Sixty-three times since Election Day in the US, the President’s campaigns and supporters have filed lawsuits asserting fraud. They lost sixty-two of those cases. The sole win was procedural, on segregation of provisional ballots. They’d already been held aside, so the case resulted in zero changed votes. Time and again, judges have listened to claims, examined the evidence, considered the law, and ruled against the President.
No convincing evidence has been presented in a court of law for fraud that would change the outcome of the election.
Still: The President repeats the lies, and people believe him. That’s why we had a failed coup attempt in Washington DC today.
We desperately need a return to the truth.
Certainly I think that responsible journalists are part of the answer. I’m proud of what we are doing at Cityside Journalism here in the Bay Area. The reporters I know are committed to their work and their communities.
But journalism alone isn’t sufficient to overcome the disinformation that some in the industry spread. OAN, Newsmax and Fox have been channels for lies, claiming cover of journalism. They’ve created a feedback loop between the President and conspiracy theorists. The feedback has amplified the damage that these lies have done.
Advertising, the foundation of most social media business models, feeds the monster. Left-wing as well as right-wing media get paid for keeping you on their web sites, clicking on their stories, looking at their ads. Facebook, Twitter, Parler all design their algorithms to maximize engagement, keeping you scrolling for as long as possible. Intense emotion — shock, anger — are effective.
Freedom of speech is a Constitutional, and I believe a human, right. We must be very careful about regulation or law constraining it. At the same time, we need better ways to debunk conspiracies and to dissuade conspiracy theorists. What we’re doing now is simply not working.
That’s a huge problem for all of us to work on. Urgently.
In the meantime, leadership matters. I thought President-Elect Biden’s message to the nation this afternoon was excellent. Simply removing Donald Trump from his privileged position in the feedback loop will be helpful.
Because free speech is not merely a right. It is also a responsibility.