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Free Minds & Free Markets

Cynical Politicians Turn #FakeNews Into a Rallying Cry for Censorship

Forget petty Russian meddling in American elections; the greater threat is government messing with our freedom.

Who knew the republic was so vulnerable that our elections could be monkeywrenched by Russian dirty-tricksters spending their office coffee budget on a motley collection of social media ads that would make the authors of Nigerian prince scam emails wince at their clumsiness?

Or, more likely, cynical politicians are making much ado about Putin and company's low-rent effort to make themselves look relevant in order to justify government interference in political speech. Just consider Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) threat to Facebook, Google, and Twitter during Senate hearings over the clumsy Russky meddling: "You created these platforms, and now they're being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it—or we will."

Feinstein thinks government should exercise more control over speech? Such a shocker—unless you saw her try to smother encryption in 2016, or heard her insist in 2015 that edgy material like The Anarchist Cookbook "should be removed from the internet" or her similar effort to ban bomb-making instructions in 1997. And then there was her scheme to narrowly define "journalists" to limit legal protections for people reporting news events, and her vote for the COICA bill that would seize domain names from websites accused of piracy…

Feinstein is hardly alone in these efforts at muzzling unwelcome voices—18 other senators joined her on that COICA vote. Alternet's Max Blumenthal points out that "the liberal Democrats in #TechHearings are most outspoken opponents of press freedom & supporters of media censorship," but the latest stab at regulating online political ads draws support from both sides of the aisle (co-sponsor Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) rivals Feinstein in the degree to which he disdains unfettered speech). So it's business as usual for legislators who apparently see everything as justification for a mass purchase of blue pencils.

That few of these censorship efforts get passed into law—and even fewer survive constitutional scrutiny—doesn't mute the message to people on the receiving end, who have been warned that Big Brother is watching. Twitter defensively says that "the number of accounts we could link to Russia and that were Tweeting election-related content was comparatively small—around one one-hundredth of a percent of total Twitter accounts at the time we studied." Nevertheless, the company has banned major Russian media operations from advertising, just in case their rare and ham-handed efforts might change a mind or two. Even before the current kerfuffle—before the election itself—Twitter "detected and hid just under half (48%) of the Tweets relating to variants of another notable hashtag, #DNCLeak, which concerned the disclosure of leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee," according to the company's Senate testimony. That should earn them a pat on the head from lawmakers, at least.

Facebook has been equally busy suppressing content that might make officialdom mad. Election efforts aside, the social media company's automated tools squelched political journalist James Bovard's attempt to repost a piece about controversial former Attorney General Janet Reno. Bovard bypassed the robo-censors by changing an image and a headline that apparently raised red flags. "This was not the first time Facebook erased an iconic image that the U.S. government would be happy to see vanish," Bovard cautions. "Facebook likely deleted thousands of postings of the 1972 photo of a young Vietnamese girl running naked after a plane dropped napalm on her village." Admittedly, the company is in a bind operating around the world under a variety of legal restrictions; it advises its moderators that "we will not censor content unless a nation has demonstrated the political will to enforce its censorship laws." Members of Congress certainly seem determined to demonstrate such political will here in the U.S., even without overt censorship laws in place.

The end result may or may not be to shield our fragile republic from the dubious products of Russian Internet pranksters, but it holds promise for trimming Americans' ability to discuss subjects that government officials find awkward.

It's not even clear who benefited from the supposedly super-powered Russian tweets. Contrary to early reports that the Russians were in the bag for Trump, the ads are all over the place message-wise. Sometimes written in broken English, the ideologically incoherent grab-bag promoted border-warrior memes, Black Lives Matter messages, anti-Trump rallies, Jesus arm-wrestling Satan on behalf of the Republican hopeful, and a buff, rainbow Bernie. Really. If they had a common purpose, it was to rile people up—the Internet equivalent of lighting a bag of dog crap aflame, setting it on the doorstep, and ringing the bell. And many Americans were silly enough to take the bait. "[T]he reason Russia was able to blend in to Americans' news feeds is that those ugly divisions were there to be exploited," GOP political strategist Patrick Ruffini points out in the Washington Post.

It's not like the Russians invented the idea of screwing with other countries' political processes anyway. That's an old and popular game—and one the U.S. has played often. "Indeed, the U.S. has found any number of creative ways to influence foreign politics. There are several ostensibly 'nongovernmental organizations' (NGOs), most notably the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, that exist supposedly to help educate populations in newly democratic countries about the mechanics and virtues of democracy," Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute noted earlier this year. "The reality is that they fund and help train political factions that are deemed friendly to the United States, and specifically to Washington's foreign policy." Without even getting into the outright coups sponsored by the U.S. government, American officials inserted money and assistance to affect the outcome in contests from the 1948 Italian general election at least through relatively recent elections in Serbia—maybe 81 interventions in all. Between them, "the U.S. and the USSR/Russia have intervened in one of every nine competitive national level executive elections between 1946 and 2000," according to Carnegie Mellon University's Dov Levin.

That's not to say it's enjoyable to be on the receiving end. But interfering in other countries' elections is hardly an isolated event, and it usually takes place on a much larger and more targeted scale than the recent low-rent Russian effort to make Americans slightly angrier at each other than we already are.

In fact, many of the American lawmakers screaming the loudest now over a few Russian-sponsored social media ads have been in office long enough to have presided over much more serious U.S. fiddling in elections elsewhere. They know what it takes to manipulate political systems and how to push for the outcomes they want in the face of popular opposition. And that's exactly the context in which to understand their calls for regulation of social media and tighter government control of political speech.

Forget Russian meddling in American elections—the greater threat is government messing with our freedom.

Photo Credit: Senate.gov

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  • BestUsedCarSales||

    heard her insist in 2015 that edgy material like The Anarchist Cookbook "should be removed from the internet"

    Unless we ban deviantart, anything else is simply stemming the effect of edginess online, not the cause.

  • Jimmy Bob "Bubba" BoDean||

    yeh reason is rite that fienstien is a fuckin jew cunt. the only peopols wutt we shood be sensoring is the lefty news wutt publushes lies bout are grate libretarian presdent.

  • juris imprudent||

    Provocateur pretends poorly.

  • Sevo||

    You're too kind; toddlers do better.
    Pretty certain this is commie-kid, so the intelligence level is expected.

  • Cy||

    It's a RUSSIAN! Somebody call CNN!

  • Quixote||

    Putin knew exactly how to handle the criminal "performances" of Pussy Riot. Rather than subject him to inappropriate criticism, we should forthrightly acknowledge that we've learned a good deal from him in that regard. See the documentation at:

    https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • jogibew||

    I'm making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

    This is what I do... www.netcash10.com

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    (co-sponsor Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) rivals Feinstein in the degree to which he disdains unfettered speech).

    It's not that he JUST hates free speech, but also that he wants to see if he can start one more war before he dies.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I would say McCain wants as many wars as he can help start.

  • Cy||

    But muh POW!

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Let's root for the tumor!

  • Mezzanine||

    The brain tumor explained a lot. My grandfather was a POW in Vietnam who lived through the same horrific experience as McCain. He was disgusted and couldn't understand how someone that went through that would be so gungho to start more wars. He figured McCain either had dementia or was so bitter about what happened that he wanted others to suffer like he did.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Contrary to early reports that the Russians were in the bag for Trump, the ads are all over the place message-wise.

    I get the feeling that if they're anything there some random agency in the Russian government who did it because, why not? I seem to recall the amount spent on advertising was astonishingly low as well, which further makes it seem that it was just some random group rather than a concentrated effort by the whole of Russia.

  • damikesc||

    Their goal was, apparently, to cause division in the country.

    I guess they made an amazingly successful investment.

  • Red Tony||

    Why does Reason post Tuccille's pieces at midnight ET? They're often really well written and deserve a better posting time.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    My guess? He's posts them himself and he posts at about 9 PM Arizona time. I agree though. He is a very good writer, beyond the fact that I can jerk myself off and talk about he's the most true libertarian on this site, he is also a clear, consistent and direct writer. Him and Stossel are both good at that.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Reason commenters are complimenting Reason writers?

    What happened to this place?

  • JuanQPublic||

    I think the fact that there is so much disagreement among libertarians (both small and large L) shows far more nuance and sanity than what we're seeing in other places.

  • NebulousFocus||

    I believe this is correct, I'm up and usually see him tweet the article, at which time there are zero comments.

  • Robespierre Josef Stalin Pot||

    I'm with JD. The federal government basically does 3 things: it taxes, it spends money domestically, and it spends on defense. It's important to recognize where you stand in reference to this government with the goal being to minimize the amount that you are taxed and to maximize the amount that you receive in benefits.

    If you are in the top 0.01% economically and are supporting Bernie Sanders because you are concerned about Trump's Russian ties you probably Are a moron. By the same token if you are in the bottom 70% economically and are voting for some right-winger because he's going to stick it to liberal elites and let you keep your guns you definitely are one of Trump's newly found suckers. Congratulations, sucker.

  • sarcasmic||

    If you are in the top 0.01% economically and are supporting Bernie Sanders because you are concerned about Trump's Russian ties you probably Are a moron.

    ftfy

  • Sevo||

    "I'm with JD."

    You're probably stupid enough to think it's clever of you to feign agreement where the actual 'agreement' is nil, or next to it.
    Or you think someone here is dumb enough to think Tuccille actually shares your opinion.
    You are wrong on both counts.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    "try to smother encryption in 2016, or heard her insist in 2015 that edgy material like The Anarchist Cookbook 'should be removed from the internet' or her similar effort to ban bomb-making instructions in 1997."

    She never saw a law she didn't support, except the one of unintended consequences.

  • juris imprudent||

    She doesnt care for the Iron Law(s).

  • dantheserene||

    I believe she supported restrictions on the intelligence community spying on her office. So that's a start, I guess.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    If she still supported spying on everybody else, that's actually worse.

  • Rat on a train||

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    There's aways some excuse: hate speech, blaspemy, offensive to (fill in name of delicate snowflake group). They all come down to "we want to stifle the speech of our political enemies, and think that we will always be in power. It's the second part of that which concerns me most. One wonders how they plan to bring that about.....

  • Rich||

    In fact, many of the American lawmakers screaming the loudest now over a few Russian-sponsored social media ads have been in office long enough to have presided over much more serious U.S. fiddling in elections elsewhere.

    Oh, come on, J.D. -- that's *different* and you know it!

    Anyway, many of those lawmakers are senile.

  • Rebel Scum||

    And you have to be the ones who do something about it—or we will.

    Damn. That's right up there with "Mr. and Ms. America, turn 'em all in".

    First Amendment.
    Second Amendment.
    The end.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Another example of the Liberal conundrum: democratic participation is sacred, and every warm body should vote at least once to express their cherished and important personal views--but--all people are weak and gullible, and too susceptible to undesirable influences to be trusted to make the right decisions after hearing other viewpoints.

    At least Conservatives, who also believe that most people are idiots, try to keep some of them from voting.

  • JuanQPublic||

    The campus left, and increasingly establishment Democrats, are supportive of a hybrid that encourages mob rule while deconstructing the cornerstones of liberal due process (title 9), freedom of speech (hate speech) and privacy (encryption).

    Their reactionism to Trump poses a tangible threat.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    "If they had a common purpose, it was to rile people up—the Internet equivalent of lighting a bag of dog crap aflame, setting it on the doorstep, and ringing the bell. "

    Everyone knows that you first set the bag of shit on the doorstep first, and then light it and ring the bell. Never get caught red handed with a burning bag of shit.

  • JuanQPublic||

    Feinstein's opposition to the right of privacy and her threats of government control on social media are illiberal attacks on fundamental Constitutional liberties.

    Of course, nobody in the Democratic Party will examine this in the face of Russian hysteria and Trump reactionism, even though her words thus far pose a big threat to liberties.

  • NoVaNick||

    Here's a solution that I'm sure Feinstein and progs could get behind, as well as their statist pals in the other party like Graham and McCain. Make it that all IP addresses be associated with the actual physical address that the postings originate from. That way, only mostly rich white people will have access to social media, and it will be the end of smartphones-sorry!

  • Liberty Lover||

    Only in a free society where your freedom of speech is protected by the Bill of Rights, is it okay to call for censorship.

  • jerryg1018||

    Politicians are always looking for ways to censor speech. The McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance law was a prime example. It's main focus was protecting incumbent politicians from challengers by putting up all kinds of roadblocks and hurdles a challenger had to overcome. A campaign expenditure of as little as $25 required extensive reporting to the FEC, penalties for minor filing errors carried heavy fines and imprisonment.
    The Citizens United decision was over a video produced by Citizens and was going to be aired over cable TV. The FCC prohibited the video from being aired because the FEC deemed it critical of then Senator Hillary Clinton. Pure protectionism.
    Many states enacted their own versions of McCain-Feingold that had even more stringent requirements in efforts to silence political opponents.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    It isn't just politicians. We already know that the left is obsessed with laying a legal foundation for censorship in order to hold onto their power and manipulate the mob that gives them more power. But "objective journalist" types are all for it too. They just call it "reform" instead of "censorship".

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