The title to Tim Wu’s op-ed in the NYT sounds the alarm– “How Twitter Killed the First Amendment.” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/27/opinion/twitter-first-amendment.html?_r=0. .
Professor Wu points out that there has been a dramatic change in how speech operates in American politics. Formerly, the First Amendment worked to protect speakers from government prosecution, thereby creating a workable national political discourse. But now censors in Russia and China have invented new techniques geared to the internet age that permit them to “not only disseminate pro-government news,” but also “generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government.” Information is no longer a tool of enlightenment, but has also become a weapon “to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert, and paralyze.”
Wu also points out that these techniques have been imported into our own political discourse, ironically by our own president. “The administration habitually crosses the line between fact and propaganda.” And Trump’s supporters are also skilled in using Facebook and Twitter to “manipulate American political debate.”
I applaud Professor Wu for warning us that the Trump presidency constitutes a mortal danger to American democracy. He also helps us understand some of the causes of this danger. There are lots of them. It started with the discovery by psychologists that people are by nature much less rational than had been supposed. Not only are we irrational but we are consistently irrational in ways that allow clever opportunists to manipulate what we believe. We tend to believe falsehoods that make us feel good more readily than truths that don’t, and to accept as true false propositions if they are frequently repeated.
Our psychological frailty has allowed people like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes to create a new decentralized free speech marketplace where some newspapers, television networks. and internet sites give their audiences only information they already agree with mixed with repeated accusations of the iniquity and stupidity of their opponents. The information is different on Fox than on CNN, but the strategy is the same.
And now social media corporations like Twitter and Facebook have invented techniques that allow them to micro-target selected audiences at a speed that had been heretofore impossible. Trump agents were able to feed the unemployed construction workers in Michigan the “truth” they wanted them to hear about “rebuilding America” at the same time as they were painting Hillary Clinton as a modern Lady Macbeth to the liberal Republican women in Pennsylvania. And neither audience ever knew the identity of the source they were relying on.
Trump has also helped instigate the era of “fake news.” The term has been used to describe two different propaganda techniques. One is the systematic repetition of statements (e.g. “Obama was not born in the United States”) the speaker knows are untrue. The second is even more toxic; it consists of a constant volley of false statements by authority figures (e.g. the president of the United States) accusing main line news sources like the New York Times and NBC of routinely lying to their audiences. The result has been the creation of a political discourse where the very idea of “truth” is a contested concept.
It is clear that there are many areas where the new internet techniques must be regulated, but this promises to be a very long and contentious process. Right now we have a more immediate problem. President Trump is using his constitutional powers to sow distrust in the integrity of our traditional procedures for establishing political truth. The idea of a First Amendment “marketplace of ideas” where opposing ideas compete in a fair competition from which truth emerges is central to our democracy. The Trump presidency continually attempts to undermine that competition by accusing the traditional umpires in this debate, like the Times and NBC, of intentional lies. The longer he stays in office the more harm he does to the voters’ trust in the democratic process. If the legitimacy of our political discourse is going to survive, American voters are going to have to decisively repudiate Donald Trump before he completely destroys trust in the system.
How will that repudiation come about? The constitution provides a mechanism: impeachment. That will require the House to pass articles of impeachment–most likely charging Trump of colluding with the Russians to impact the 2016 election–and then having the Senate find Trump guilty as charged. Actually I think Trump is guilty of the even greater constitutional crime of subverting the democratic process. But whatever the infraction charged, it is not clear that impeachment will be successful because both houses of Congress are now controlled by a Republican party that seems increasingly to fear Trump more than he fears them. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/25/us/politics/trump-republican-party-critics.html
Should impeachment fail, it will be necessary that the voters overwhelmingly reject Trump and the Republican party in 2020. This too will not be easily accomplished with a polarized electorate fed false and confusing information. Trump is still supported by 35-40% of voters as well as the leadership of the Republican party. And that’s a lot of voters in a polarized nation, especially when you add to them voters who don’t approve of Trump but prefer him to an opponent whom Trump and his agents will constantly demonize as they did Hillary in 2016.
Now all voters who reject Trump and Trumpism must confront the urgent issue of repudiating Trump. Lingering tensions between Clinton and Sanders supporters within the Democratic party must be neutralized and moderate Republicans and Independents must join together to repudiate Trump. We all lose if he wins.
If we hope to put our fragile Humpty Dumpty of a democracy back together again, it’s Donald Trump who must take a great fall.