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President Democracy Visits Stanford, Demands Censorship
Barack Obama's crusade against "disinformation" begins
“I’m pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist,” said former President Barack Obama at Stanford University on Thursday, as he detailed how the government must immediately crack down on Internet speech in order to protect “democracy.”
The much-hyped speech can only be described as an experiment in vacuousness. But while President Obama managed to say very little in his 7,000-word address, he didn’t say nothing. His message was pretty simple: US conservatives and others (Putin, namely) are creating “disinformation” online and we (liberals) have to fight back through regulation and other actions in order to preserve political order.
At the end of this post, I go through quite a bit of what Obama did say, but I’d like to start with what he didn’t say. He fixates at length on the problem of right-wing disinformation — disclaimers: yes, Republicans lie; yes, some/many of them say crazy things on the Internet; yes, millions of GOP voters believe those crazy things. But at no point was there any acknowledgement whatsoever that his party and its allies in Silicon Valley and the media have labeled and continue to label accurate information as “disinformation” in order to justify censoring it.
This is a central issue and he completely ignored it.
Consider what happened to the Hunter Biden laptop story in late 2020, just weeks before the Presidential election:
State-funded media organizations like NPR and social media giants like Twitter censored accurate news stories that reflected poorly on their preferred candidate, Joe Biden.
Twitter banned a newspaper, The New York Post, which reported the story, from its platform, and prevented users from linking to the Post story.
So: the largest social media corporations in the world, on whose platforms a critical proportion of public political discourse takes place, actively censored accurate and relevant electoral information in order to protect a political candidate from scrutiny. It’s a perfect example of how censorship can go wrong — or right, depending on who you ask.
Obama’s speech was titled “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm.” Let’s analyze the Hunter Biden story with this framing in mind.
For conservatives, it was the censorship of the laptop information that constituted a “challenge to democracy.” But for liberals, the challenge was the information itself, and not because it was “Russian disinformation” — which it wasn’t — but because it was believable and thus damaging to Joe Biden. I’m not sure if the suppression and censorship of the laptop facts changed the electoral result of the 2020 election — I tend to think not — but it I’m still concerned by it.
The widespread refusal by Democrats to address that issue at all — President Obama didn’t even hint at it — is conspicuous, to put it mildly. My conclusion is that censorship is not only compatible with Barack Obama’s vision of democracy, it’s integral to it, as it is to the Democratic electoral strategy. But I repeat myself: democracy and Democratic electoral strategy are one and the same!
And that’s a highlight of the speech: the conflation of similar ideas with one another to the point of confusion. What does he mean by “democracy” in this instance? What are “norms” and is censoring Republicans one of them? I’m sure others had the same questions, but unfortunately Obama did not take any questions after his remarks. He was not about to repeat the mistake his political and media allies made a few weeks back at the University of Chicago, where a group of students embarrassed them quite thoroughly.
So, I’ve taken the liberty of preparing a short glossary and annotated guide to the speech. Without further ado:
Max’s Glossary of “Democracy”
Helping you understand President Barack Obama’s Stanford speech: what he said and what he meant
“Challenges to Democracy” — threats to the electoral success of the Democratic Party
“healthy, inclusive democracy” — permanent rule by the Democratic Party
“a more inclusive, equitable capitalism” — Communism
“a shared set of facts” — total information monopoly
“the highest standards of journalistic integrity” — uncritical acceptance and repetition of Democratic Party talking points.
“a strawman [argument]” — an accurate characterization of Democrats’ policies
“private companies like Facebook or Twitter” — publicly-traded companies staffed by former Democratic Party officials that implement the Democrat censorship agenda under threat of punitive legislative and regulatory action
"our democratic institutions” — the institutions that prevent the exercise of majority rule and protect liberal hegemony
“regulation and industry standards” — government-mandated censorship
“The First Amendment” — an anti-censorship provision in the Bill of Rights, Obama’s citation of which is purely ironic
Annotated and translated selections
“We’ll have to reform our political institutions in ways that allow people to be heard and give them real agency.”
Translation: “we will need to remove what few dissenting voices still exist in state institutions and tilt them even further in favor of our preferred groups.”
There are still brand name newspapers and magazines, not to mention network news broadcasts, NPR other outlets that have adapted to the new digital environment while maintaining the highest standards of journalistic integrity.
NPR — really? The outlet that publicly declared that they wouldn’t “waste the listeners’ and readers’ time” with accurate reporting on Hunter Biden?
“New technologies are already challenging the way we regulate currency, how we keep consumers safe from fraud.”
Translation: “We are going to attempt to confiscate your cryptocurrency because it protects you from government control, i.e. us.”
Fortunately, I am convinced that it is possible to preserve the transformative power and promise of the open internet, while at least mitigating the worst of its harms. And I believe that those of you in the tech community, soon to be in the tech community, not just its corporate leaders, but employees at every level have to be part of the solution.
Translation: “We can preserve the illusion of Internet freedom for most people while actively censoring and suppressing the most effective dissent against our rule. You, the academic and technological elite, will be integral in this effort.”
Second, we aren’t going to get rid of all offensive or inflammatory content on the web. That is a strawman. We’d be wrong to try.
… THEY ARE ABSOLUTELY GOING TO TRY.
No Democratic government can or should do what China, for example, is doing, simply telling people what they can and cannot say or publish while trying to control what others say about their country abroad. And I don’t have a lot of confidence that any single individual or organization, private or public, should be charged or do a good job at determining who gets to hear what.
It sure seems like they aspire to do what China does. And did you notice the capital-D Democratic? That’s a small but revealing stylistic slip, lifted directly from Obama’s Medium page. It may be unintentional, but it has the effect of eliding the difference between democracy, traditionally understood, and rule by the Democratic Party. Hmmm…
That said, the First Amendment is a check on the power of the state. It doesn’t apply to private companies like Facebook or Twitter, any more than it applies to editorial decisions made by The New York Times or Fox News. It never has. Social media companies already make choices about what is or is not allowed on their platforms and how that content appears, both explicitly through content, moderation, and implicitly through algorithms.
The problem is, we often don’t know what principles govern those decisions.
We do, in fact, know what principles govern these decisions: state and elite pressure. And that’s exactly why this is a copout. It is absolutely a First Amendment matter if companies are censoring at the request of politicians, even if the people implementing the censorship are nominally non-state actors.
Three, any rules we come up with to govern the distribution of content on the Internet will involve value judgments. None of us are perfectly objective. What we consider unshakeable truth today may prove to be totally wrong tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean some things aren’t truer than others or that we can’t draw lines between opinions, facts, honest mistakes, intentional deceptions.
Translation: “Even if we aren’t sure what the facts are, we will censor based on instinct.”
But while content moderation can limit the distribution of clearly dangerous content, it doesn’t go far enough.
Translation: MOAR CENSORSHIP!
And while companies initially always complain that the rules are going to stifle innovation and destroy the industry, the truth is, is that a good regulatory environment usually ends up spurring innovation because it raises the bar on safety and quality.
To test this assertion, I encourage you to visit the European Union or one of its fine websites, in order to enjoy the innovative fruits of its regulatory environment.
In a democracy, we can rightly expect companies to subject the design of their products and services to some level of scrutiny. At minimum, they should have to share that information with researchers and regulators who are charged with keeping the rest of the safe.
This one is fascinating, especially in light of Elon Musk’s bid to acquire Twitter and his proposal to make its algorithm public. Here, Obama doesn’t actually suggest that the algorithm be made fully public — he doesn’t rule it out either — but that it be shared with “researchers and regulators.” Why?
We do expect these companies to affirm the importance of our democratic institutions, not dismiss them, and to work to find the right combination of regulation and industry standards that will make democracy stronger.
Translation: “We will deputize social media corporations to implement government policies that don’t pass constitutional muster. Neutrality is not an option.”
For example, in the United States, they should be working with, not always contrary to, those groups that are trying to prevent voter suppression and specifically has targeted black and brown communities.
Translation: “Social media companies, in addition to taking orders from the government, must follow the precise demands of partisan activist groups; if they don’t, we will accuse them of racism.”
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