Column: ‘Fake news’ scare to chill speech
Last week, Republicans began to call for the release of a memo authored by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes that purports to lay out a series of abuses connected to the FBI surveillance of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. As often happens these days, a Twitter hashtag, #ReleaseTheMemo, evolved around the effort and was widely retweeted by Republicans and elected officials.
It didn’t take long for a report to emerge that claimed Russian-sponsored Twitter accounts and bots were the real driving force behind the viral call for the release of the memo. Without worrying about the veracity of this convenient claim, all the usual suspects giddily spread the story across social media — probably because they have such a deep reverence for truth in the era of Trump.
The report also prompted Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, both Democrats, to pull out every fearmongering catchphrase available to demand that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg perform an “in-depth forensic examination” on the “ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process.”
It’s difficult, it seems, for some people to embrace neutral principles nowadays. But if you genuinely believe that President Donald Trump’s distasteful tweets are attacks on the foundations of free expression, how could you not be alarmed by a pair of powerful elected officials demanding that social media companies hand over information about their users? What would they say if the president had sent a letter to Google insisting it give the executive branch an “in-depth forensic examination” of his political opponent’s searches?
As it turns out, reports today say that Twitter’s internal analysis found it was mostly Americans, not creepy Slavic mind-control robots, who were behind the hashtags. Not that it really matters, anyway. If a group of Americans has a legitimate issue to rally around, how is it supposed to control what outsiders do? It’s not as if #ReleaseTheMemo was secret or illegal. Republican politicians were openly using it.
Yet if Feinstein and Schiff had their way, Twitter and Facebook would have moved to quash the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag for what apparently turned out to be solely partisan reasons. Sounds like a power that can be abused. Even if the two had been genuinely troubled by Russian hashtags — yes, suspend your disbelief — the source of “fake news” is not always easily discernible. Sometimes it comes to you from an anonymous Russian bot, and sometimes it’s retweeted by a prominent journalist.
Democrats have manufactured panic over amateurish Russian propaganda to not only claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “meddling” in the election but also to argue that interference had the power to turn the election to Trump. With this risible idea in hand, they have created paranoia about social media interactions and rationalized infringements on expression.
Not long before demanding forensic investigations into hashtags, Feinstein was demanding that Twitter, Facebook and Google restrict their content more tightly, threatening, “Do something about it — or we will.” Democrats have attempted to control interactions through the Fairness Doctrine or the IRS, and now through the Russia scare. Part of living in a free country is dealing with messy, ugly misinformation.
Lots of people in the United States seem pretty impressed by how they do things in Europe. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May is launching a “rapid response unit” run by the state to “battle the proliferation of ‘fake news’ online.” The “national security communications unit” will be tasked with combatting misinformation — as if it has either the power or ability to do so. In France, President Emmanuel Macron is working on a plan to combat “fake news,” which includes the power to institute an emergency block on websites during elections. What could possibly go wrong?
Me? I’d rather we live with Russian troll bots feeding us nonsense than authoritarian senators dictating how we consume news. I mean, has anyone yet produced a single voter who lost his free will during the 2016 election because he had a Twitter interaction with an employee of a St. Petersburg troll farm? Or do voters tend to seek out the stories that back their own worldviews?
If your argument is that Americans are uninformed and easily misled, I’m with you. Just look at all the people who believe that a $46,000 buy on Facebook by the Russians was enough to destroy the pillars of our democracy. But if you want to live in a free and vibrant nation, you have to live with the externalities of that freedom.
David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist.