Joanne Freeman, a history professor at Yale University, says that we are in a battle of words, not just politics. Freeman cites what happened last week at the U.S. Capitol. Was it a protest, or an insurrection? Was it a moment of great passion as Senator Ted Cruz suggested or domestic “terrorists not patriots” as Senator Lindsey Graham claimed? Freeman suggests that words can be used as “masks.”
Freeman postulates, “Was what happened at the Capitol extremism masked as democracy?” Hearing the mob assaulting the U.S. Capitol yelling “USA, USA,” and “Hang Mike Pence,” would seem to affirm her contention.
What does it mean to be a patriot? Senator Graham begs the question when he calls the participants “terrorists, not patriots.” Some say patriotism means to be in service to your country, in the military, in the Peace Corps, in a food bank, or by raising a family that learns how and why to respect the traditions and institutions of our democracy. To others it means the incongruity of storming the U.S. Capitol, desecrating heirlooms of our democracy in pursuit of a cause. Not to overstate the dichotomy, but Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who spied for the Russians and compromised many U.S. agents said he was being “patriotic” because he was dutifully exposing the ineptitude of U.S. intelligence services. He’s currently serving 15 life sentences in a maximum-security prison in Colorado.
All that to say, words and language have much to do with the controversy over free speech and First Amendment rights, especially in our brave new world of social media and artificial intelligence. Much has been made of Twitter’s decision to permanently close Donald Trump’s Twitter account. The president’s son responded by saying it marked the “end of free speech in America.” Actually, no. The president is able to give speeches or press conferences whenever he wants, to say whatever he wants. But the termination of his account does demonstrate the incredible power of social media companies.
Paradoxically, the left and the right both want to take action against the big tech communications platforms like Twitter, Google and Facebook, but for different reasons. One side’s concern is in how to prevent partisan players, cult figures and misinformation propagandists from weaponizing these platforms for information warfare. The other side believes these platforms are biased against their conservative ideology.
Welcome to the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and a provision called Section 230. This section basically immunizes these companies from liabilities related to content from either users or providers. In effect, individuals can be sued but not the companies themselves. Further, private companies like the three mentioned above can regulate who can say what and who may or may not have their accounts terminated. When it comes to free speech, it’s governments that cannot discriminate, not private companies, unless the speech constitutes incitement to riot or hate speech.
All can agree, big tech holds an enormous amount of power, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that common sense regulations are needed in this new-tech world of information and disinformation. Artificial intelligence can reduce the problem of scale in moderating speech on these private platforms, but that only applies if these platforms have to conform to broadcast standards. What makes the most sense is to treat these mega platforms like radio and TV stations. This requires the view that the internet has become like the airways, a national broadcast medium. It would mean that platforms like Facebook and Twitter would be subject to things like indecency regulations, moderation of content to eliminate hate speech, incitement and harassment. The policy challenges are to figure out the rules and standards these platforms must subscribe to once they reach a certain size before they submit their plans for licensure with the Federal Communications Commission.
Words matter. Actions and accountability matter. Was what happened in Washington a destructive insurrection against our democracy or just a passing moment of passion? There is a clear-headed answer to this question.
The sacking of the U.S. Capitol cannot be regarded as an event subject to subjective interpretation. When security professionals begin to assert that the biggest threat to our democracy is domestic terrorism, not foreign terrorism, then we have a real problem in the homeland. Patriotism is not the act of assaulting our sacred democratic institutions, no matter what podcast, tweet or text may say to the contrary.
When it comes to leadership words matter greatly. Think of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, FDR after Pearl Harbor, Churchill’s “We shall never surrender,” Reagan at the Berlin Wall.
John J. Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College underlined this point on the occasion of the assault on the Capitol: “Words matter. Words can explain, inspire, console and heal. In the past, presidents have tried to do these things, with various degrees of success. Unfortunately, before the assault on the Capitol, President Trump’s rhetoric was unique, making things much worse.”
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, an author, and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.