Kissing cousin to Lawprof Danielle Citron’s Cyber Civil Rights movement, dedicated to the criminalization of words and ideas that offend her delicate sensibilities and, well, just piss her off, is the government’s latest effort to cleanse the internet. As reported in the Washington Free Beacon:
The federal government is spending nearly $1 million to create an online database that will track “misinformation” and hate speech on Twitter.
The National Science Foundation is financing the creation of a web service that will monitor “suspicious memes” and what it considers “false and misleading ideas,” with a major focus on political activity online.
What might they mean by “false and misleading ideas”? The earth is flat? John Bad Elk is still good law? Vaccines cause autism?
The “Truthy” database, created by researchers at Indiana University, is designed to “detect political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution.”
Political smears sounds suspiciously like ideas that are intended to harm the regime, leaving it to the regime to decide what ideas about itself are good and what smear. What could possibly go wrong?
“This service could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate,” the grant said.
This goes to the core aspiration of every true believer, to eliminate speech that disputes their world view because it’s WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!!! As Hans Bader explains:
It’s not the government’s role to rule to declare ideas “false or misleading.” Under the First Amendment, there’s “no such thing as a false idea,” according to the Supreme Court’s decision in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974).
Moreover, “hate speech” is protected under the First Amendment, and even commonplace views about race or gender have been branded as “hate speech” by government officials. The Supreme Court has made clear over and over again that hate speech in public settings is protected by the First Amendment in decisions like (1) R.A.V. v. St. Paul (1992); (2) Snyder v. Phelps (2011); and (3) Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992).
The argument, however, is artfully couched in the bizarrely circular reason that is adored by delicate teacups, that censorship of speech that hurts their feelings is necessary to preserve open debate. To prevent you from scratching a hole in your head at that notion, allow me to explain.
In the minds of some who believe deeply in the full expression of ideas, with the provisos that robust dialogue be limited to their idea of civility, their idea of legitimate ideas, their lexicon of words that cause no one to feel badly about themselves, the elimination with prejudice of thought and language that fails to comport with their ideal encourages debate.
It’s just that it’s their debate. Now with the government’s seal of approval.
There is no question but that the internets, Twitter included, are replete with utter nonsense, wild and crazy ideas that range from the absurd to the ridiculous. There is also no question, sadly, that people who are thought-challenged believe some of this dumb stuff online, perhaps for no better reason than the persistent belief that if it wasn’t true, they wouldn’t be allowed to say so.
They are. They can. It’s your job, as reader, to discern real from false. I know, it’s a lot of work, and many people are ill-prepared to parse content and logic to figure out what claims and arguments are sound. Nobody said free speech was easy.
But many say that free speech should be happy. Happy in the sense that we should be capable of expressing our ideas without anyone disagreeing with us, except in dulcet tones, using moderated words, all designed to make us feel welcome in our expression of thought. Provided it’s approved thought.
It’s bad enough that transient interest and identitarian groups have seized upon the idea, pandered to the unknowing public to promote their own flavor of hate. They hate all ideas that aren’t theirs. But when the government sends nearly a cool mil to Indiana University to vet Twitter for politically unacceptable ideas, it’s no longer just a matter of challenging the teacups.
This First Amendment protection accords with the reality that politicians and their allies (such as judges they appointed or confirmed) will typically view speech critical of them as “false,” based on their own subjective, ideologically-based notions of what is “true” or “false.” “As aptly summarized by the Supreme Court,” in Thomas v. Collins, in the realm of political debate “‘every person must be his own watchman for truth, because the forefathers did not trust any government to separate the truth from the false for us.’”
Sure, it sucks when someone says something you find abhorrent or dangerously wrong. Some people feel compelled to stay up all night because of it.
But just as ideas aren’t subject to the approval of self-appointed censors like Danielle Citron, they similarly aren’t any business of the United States of America, no matter who is in office or how artfully they pander to the public to justify the eradication of words and ideas that hurt your feelings or give you a headache.
Distinguishing between truth and truthy is our job, like it or not. Preventing the government from doing it for us is our job as well. Get to work.