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Weaponizing First Amendment Rhetoric

How is the First Amendment used as a strategic tool in the service of political, social, and cultural power? Four CITAP faculty discuss.

Published onNov 09, 2023
Weaponizing First Amendment Rhetoric

Weaponizing First Amendment Rhetoric

Summary by Nanditha Narayanamoorthy

The First Amendment protects individuals and allows freedom of speech, religion, assembly, press and the right to petition. Freedom of speech, the protection of free and fair elections, the right to vote and participate in the political process and the equal protection of individuals and legal institutions that operate with integrity and in the public interest are preconditions to a healthy constitutional democracy. Yet, the cultural power of the First Amendment means that principles of free speech are routinely invoked in ways that extend far beyond government suppression of speech.

The free speech clause has fallen under heavy scrutiny lately owing to the legal battles and controversies over social media’s ever-growing role in political discourse. As platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok become influential forums for politicians, activists and the media, they’ve been criticized for fanning misinformation, bigotry and division.1 Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter prompted the re-platformization of Donald Trump, Kanye West, Andrew Tate, and others suspended for breaking Twitter’s former rules on abuse, hate speech, and baseless conspiracy theories against vulnerable communities. But should free expression be what we value beyond everything else in public life, namely progress, equality, and inclusion?

Even though the First Amendment vows to protect the civil liberties of all U.S. citizens, it was not intended to protect minorities and Black communities in the first place and has always been used as a weapon of the powerful. It was used throughout the 19th century to suppress the speech of abolitionists, religious minorities, suffragists, labor organizers, and pacifists who wanted to be an active part of democracy and to have their voices heard. It has since become a tool for authoritarians, racists, and misogynists to weaponize First Amendment rhetoric in harmful and horrific ways. From internet trolls to election disinformation, people weaponize ‘free speech’ and First Amendment principles to silence women and undermine the legitimacy of elections.

The panel “Weaponizing First Amendment Rhetoric,” organized by Amanda Reid at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism, brought together Francesca Tripodi, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Daniel Kreiss, and Shannon McGregor from the UNC Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP). Panelists discussed how movements use the rhetoric of free speech and expression as a strategic tool in the service of political, social, and cultural power, considered alternative ways of thinking about expression to reclaim our shared values, and revisited foundational questions of power in public life.

Francesca Tripodi, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Daniel Kreiss, and Shannon McGregor at First Amendment Day 2022

Nanditha Narayanamoorthy:

Welcome, and thank you for being here. I wanted to have all of you take a few minutes to define what the First Amendment is.

Francesca Tripodi:

My name is Francesca Tripodi. I’m an Assistant Professor in the School of Information and Library Science (SILS), and I think about the historical role that misinformation plays in our society and the relationship between misinformation and free speech. I have a new book, The Propagandists’ Playbook, where I describe seven tactics that pundits and politicians regularly draw on to motivate voters, influence ideas, and spur public action. I am particularly interested in the ways in which the First Amendment is leveraged in an attempt to protect lies. An example that I think would be great to talk about is what's happening right now with Alex Jones and the Alex Jones defamation lawsuits.2 I'm also interested in how prominent figures in the media and politics routinely conflate privatized platforms with the public sphere. I think this conflation between what constitutes the public is a really important discussion that I hope we have today. I also just came from across the quad where our students at the School of Information and Library Science have organized a banned book reading. And I hope that we can talk a little bit about how banning books is also tied to freedom of expression and the ways in which the actual public sphere, the physical public sphere, libraries, and the public parks schools, have been historically managed through the government and reinforced gender, sexual, and racial inequality within the United States.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:

So this is the first I am speaking about the First Amendment. As a sociologist, I think less about what the First Amendment is as a legal tactic or practice, and I think more about how people do meaning-making of the First Amendment. I think of it as rhetoric; I think of it in an organizational capacity and I think of it as a resource, right? A cultural resource, economic resource, et cetera. It honestly doesn't really matter what the court’s meaning of the First Amendment is. And when you think about it as a discursive practice strategy, it really matters what kind of meaning people assign. And actually, the power of First Amendment rhetoric is really about meaning-making and the power that people assign to it. I think a lot about the everyday lived experiences of inequality. I think about how people try to use rhetoric to either acquire more resources or to defend the resources that they have. And historically we've seen the shifting of what side of the political spectrum claims to be targeted by First Amendment exclusion. That is because as a rhetorical device, what the First Amendment has come to mean culturally is that it is a way to push back against social change and social movement. So the fact that the different parts of the political spectrum take it up and lay it down is just a reflection of where we are in the cycle of social progress and social change.

But one of the things that is not new, but distinct, about the moment that we are in—listen to my first keyword—is power, and joint meaning-making. So power and meaning-making — the consolidation of corporate power is significant to how people can make meaning of the First Amendment and how they can leverage it. One of the things that I hope we'll talk about today is the consolidation of corporate power and how that creates silos for social movements, particularly progressive movements, and why that is seen as a power to acquire and be leveraged by a political party that is for all intents and purposes in the majority. We have 23 state governments currently controlled by Republicans. The idea that somehow the Republican party is waning is itself a rhetorical strategy so that they can use it to access First Amendment rhetoric in their defense, to make the right seem like it is waning in political power so they can tap into the rhetorical power of being victims of the loss of their role in the public square. And that's one of the things I think, is weaponizing the First Amendment for people. And then the other thing that I will say is that it is very odd for me lately, as a Black American woman from the U.S. South who thinks of herself from the left side of the political spectrum, to increasingly be looking to the state to resolve issues as our legislative and judicial branch changes, as our political wins change. One of the things I hope we'll talk about is how this plays out on different levels.

Daniel Kreiss:

When I think about the question, “what does it mean to weaponize the First Amendment?,” mostly in line with Tressie, I think about it in terms of more of a sociological perspective instead of a rhetorical place. One thing I think about often is the elevation of expression above everything else. And in actuality for a democratic society to function, we need to balance expression against all sorts of other social values. One is norms. So, we need truthfulness and good faith in public debate. We have obligations and responsibilities to one another. We have to think about the ways that expression can also undermine other democratic values such as electoral accountability or the peaceful transfer of power. Broadly, looking across American history, we see ways in which expression can be corrosive to democracy: it can undermine public trust; social solidarity; public faith and democracy; commitment to things like elections; a legitimate opposition or equality and inclusion. It is one value among many that's required for a robust public life.

And broadly, I think what we see in our moment is a second move then—and I think Francesca alluded to this—that are very overly broad claims that the First Amendment applies to everything and that we have expectations of free speech. I have a four-year old. My four-year old doesn't always have expressive rights in my house, or expressive rights when he is shouting down a teacher or not involved in good sharing or turn-taking at school. We don't expect free speech in church during the service. Broad claims for speech and expression can often subvert spaces that we create for dialogue and discussion for mutual understanding and inclusion. And oftentimes, when we think about weaponizing expression, it is exactly the ways in which expression can subvert expression norms, it can suppress political participation. It can use harassment for closed speech, especially among vulnerable people. And, especially in this country, we've seen women targeted online through online harassment campaigns, people of color, and Black Americans as targets of voter suppression, stretching back well over a century. And this is ultimately why we have to have some ground rules for speech in many different spaces that we're in. And I think this would be the final point that we talk about today. But one thing that I study very dearly is ways in which platforms come up with rules for platforms and have to balance many different stakeholders—children, commercial users, people who don't like politics, people who are vulnerable, ethnic, racial and religious minorities, women. So they set rules for speech to balance these, to try to protect people from intimidation, violence, and harm. We should applaud how these are actively managed. Spacious, and oftentimes overly broad interpretations of the First Amendment can often be done in a way that forecloses expressive opportunities, and how they can take us away from those norms such as inclusion, in addition to things like the peaceful transfer of power. And I think we need to talk about how we draw those lines.

Shannon McGregor:

I wanted to start with a quote that I think actually brings together everything that we've all been talking about. It's by Catharine MacKinnon in a piece in the Virginia Law Review. She says, “Increasingly the statutes subjected to First Amendment attack have sided with the powerless and have been attacked by those with power, claiming to be powerless dissenters.” As I think you can see, there's a common theme of power and of a flipping of the rhetoric and the idea of who has power in society. I think that we have this semi-modern folk theory of the First Amendment that is only about free speech, not necessarily thinking about all the other aspects of it. To Daniel's point about balancing our freedom and a democratic society, this folk theory of free speech that is unlimited does not reflect values actually in the First Amendment, which says that our speech cannot be prohibited or limited by states, or by government actors.

So the First Amendment, even in the literal reading, much less our folk theory reading, does not give you the right to be heard, the right to have a platform, the right to be listened to, or the right to have your speech respected. And so in the courts and in public discourse, we've seen the First Amendment transform into the tool by which those with power can claim immunity against the things they say that do not align with some of the norms that Daniel was talking about that are needed to have public dialogue, have a public discourse, and have a working democracy where we can sort through all of these issues together. And all of this ties into this victim-oppressor narrative that we have seen enacted and slipped into different areas of our public rhetoric. And in my work, I'm really interested in the role of social media in political institutions. I use that term broadly, not only in governing bodies that politicians are in, but also the press and the public. And then, I think we have to really move beyond this folk theory of unlimited speech to think about who deserves to be heard, and what are the balancing priorities that we can find between speech and the other rights like liberty and just feeling safe and happiness that we have also laid out in our founding documents. I think that going forward, it's moving past the folk theory —and again, not only what the courts decide is important, but I think as Tressie pointed out, it's really important what we all just think the First Amendment is and how it gets enacted in political media, in cultural media. Because that's where we might be able to shift away from this sort of very flattened folk theory that it's just about unlimited free speech and nothing else.

Francesca Tripodi and Tressie McMillan Cottom

Nanditha Narayanamoorthy:

I wanted to go back to the original discussion and think through what it means to weaponize the First Amendment.

Francesca Tripodi:

Sure, I can talk about this. I think I would like to bring two examples to the table on weaponization of First Amendment or the perceived idea of the First Amendment. I think we've done a really good job at seeing what the First Amendment is and how it is perceived, and how these are done in two separate ways. So I brought up the concept of Alex Jones. And I think this is a very important case that's happening right now in our lives, where someone for the first time is being held liable for lies that they set out and profited from. And I think what's interesting is that in order to be held accountable, the parents who lost their children were told that their children didn't exist. For those of you who are not familiar, Alex Jones is a conspiracy theorist who spread ample amounts of disinformation, but in particular, claims that the shooting that happened at Sandy Hook and other mass tragedies are not real and were staged events to try and take away our Second Amendment rights. The only way to hold him accountable is by claiming defamation, which I just think is a very perverse way of holding someone accountable who has caused such deep distress to parents who have already experienced the unimaginable. And you see this in his appearances at court, he comes with tape over his mouth that says “Protect the First Amendment.” And we see in reaction to him being held accountable very prominent politicians who are serving in Congress claiming that this is an erosion of First Amendment rights. And so I think that is one example in which the rhetoric around the First Amendment is being weaponized, and I think this is extremely dangerous.

The second thing that I think is really fascinating is how rhetoric concerning the First Amendment is used in a bizarre way to be able to to ban books. What the Supreme Court and other courts have conclusively said are that First Amendment rights are also a corollary to our First Amendment to receive information. What is fascinating, though, is that these book challenges are often initiated by the public, and how the public becomes fearful of these supposed concerns. You can see the American Library Association tracks the top 10 most banned books since the beginning, and there are some very common themes among those that are the most banned. And they are overwhelmingly books that deal with race, racial inequality, gender inequality, and sexual identity. And what is fascinating is in research, I see that political elites and pundits have an extremely sophisticated way of driving public attention towards these concepts, but misrepresenting what these concepts are. They do this so that the public is enraged about banning these books. And so I think that we're weaponizing the First Amendment in a way that we might not necessarily think about.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:

Yes, again to all of that. I'm going to try to springboard from two of Francesca's examples in thinking a great deal about something that is the focusing issue in her point about what we see as the powerful using the rhetoric of victimhood in weaponizing First Amendment rhetoric. And so I want to bring up two things. One is false equivalency and a historical interpretation of the term. So things like diversity being rewritten to mean whatever an institution or organization or a group of actors want it to mean because they have the power to amplify a definition of that term that helps their end and what facilitates that. These are not new topics. I think that is important to point out. I mean rewriting the terms, changing the terms of debate, people have always wanted to do that. The history of mass media, in fact, involves organizations not only trying to do that but promising advertisers that they could in fact do that.

The reason why you get political actors participating in mass media is because there's a promise that they will be able to do exactly that. It is important to point out that what is new isn't our impulse to want to own terms and to retrofit them to our own personal goals and aims, but that increasingly people are allowed to do it without accountability. So the privatization of places that we think of as the public square is, for me, foundational to the ability of powerful actors to perform victimhood and to not have any check on them. By doing so in a democratic process you would be able to hold a pundit—but especially a politician—to account for their truth claims, for example. But who do I approach? I don't approach the editor of Twitter, right? And if a politician has now decided that it is the only legitimate space that they will use to engage with the public, then there is no mediating actor that represents the interest of a public who has an interest in verifying the truth claim.

So the impulse has always been there. But the architecture for amplifying and consolidating our desire to own the terms and to retrofit them to the means of the powerful are unique to our media environment, and to our political environment that has diminished citizens’ rights and role, and the ability to speak back to, especially, elected officials. But I would also argue our ability to speak back to corporations has been diminished by how corporations are increasingly organized. So things like “don't shop at Chick-fil-A.” Chick-fil-A doesn’t care. The power of the economic boycott of corporations has really been diminished in part because of the changes in the accrual of political capital, but also the way corporate and private finance is structured. So, what we've seen is the diminishment of any mediating actor against which the public can push back on truth in truth claims because of the privatization of media and the consolidation of political power that follows economic power.

And the second thing I would point out is how these things get weaponized. So, we would be remiss if we didn't talk about the language by which people recognize the First Amendment. The Trojan horse for that is usually something like “cancel culture” and “wokeness.” These synonyms are designed to marshal sentiment and emotions from a public that wants to be enraged and doesn't really need the facts on what they're angry about. Again, very typical human behavior, but the power to use that to target those emotions so efficiently—that is unique, and I think specific to our moment in time. And those Trojan horses came up in a really interesting moment for me recently, where we were very concerned, for very good reason, about the new composition of the Supreme Court on a case coming out of Texas. A university professor claimed he was fired for free speech. He was the victim effectively of cancel culture who actually got a decision that I think everybody thought was right and fair. It said that if we defend your right to be protected against cancel culture, it is an infringement on the First Amendment of your colleagues and of the university, which seems like a pretty fair indecision.3 At the same time, a week later, one of the Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas, is at one of these enclaves in Utah. And he is reported to have said that he has been a victim of cancel culture, and that increasingly conservatives are, and that this rhetoric of debating whether or not the Supreme Court has become politicized is in itself a disinformation campaign by the woke left that wants to cancel the Supreme Court. So on the one hand, we've got this Supreme Court decision that we think is pretty well reasoned. And on the other hand, we've got the use of that sort of folk language, of that rhetoric of inflammation; of emotional rhetoric; of using wokeness and cancel culture to label any disagreeable sort of debate as being undemocratic; that are being held by people who have the same job. And I only point this out because I think our focus on what the First Amendment is as a legal tactic obscures how powerful it is that a Supreme Court justice said that colloquially. It is very difficult for me to accept that one's colloquial understanding of the First Amendment and its potential and power to use it does not eventually shape people's imagination on what is legitimate free speech. I bring up those two examples of ways that speech not only weaponizes, but how the tools for weaponization become legitimate tools. The rhetoric coming from someone like Clarence Thomas, in that example, would've been, five years ago, considered fringe rhetoric and would have been unacceptable in a legitimate, democratically held institution like the Supreme Court. And today it is not. And that seems like a pretty quick change to me. It is not just that these ideas become weaponized, but the way that they become mainstreamed—this is something Francesca studies a great deal—and the way they become legitimate and acceptable forms of political speech, and why we have so little power as a public body to respond to that.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Daniel Kreiss, and Shannon McGregor

Daniel Kreiss:

I'd love to just pick up on one of your threads, and part of your own work, thinking about incentives. So Tressie talked a lot about the information architecture that provides these expanded opportunities for weaponization. It also provides incentives to do so. Some of those incentives are political in the broader sense, where weaponization is ultimately about power. It's about power between different social groups that are contending for political, economic, cultural power, social status, et cetera. But then at a more mundane level, we know for instance, that weaponizing the First Amendment and telling lies, in the case of Alex Jones, is quite lucrative. You make a lot of money. We know that from the 2016 election, fake news sites were in part powered by economic grifters, just people who want to make money, and were very successful in doing so. There's a number of other political incentives.

One of the big pieces of the Facebook whistleblower findings of Frances Haugen was that European political parties said that they were incentivized to take more extreme positions on social media because that is what will get engagement.4 In essence, political actors are incentivized to perform politics in certain ways that are deeply skewed by the workings of what gets attention on social media, what gets attention on social media at a trustee's point, what is outrageous, what is fueled by sentiment. There is a sort of working of economics as it intersects with various other forms of political interest that runs underneath everything that shapes the performances we have in public life. And to Tressie’s, I think, very right point, when you have a layer of commercial and technological mediation underneath the public sphere, it's going to incentivize and create returns for actors of certain forms of very extreme performance that's fueled by emotion and sentiment. And that could also be corrosive to democratic life in all the ways that I think Francesca is pressing.

One other point I wanted to make on weaponization—weaponization of the First Amendment—could also be the crowding out of other disciplines. We are here celebrating First Amendment, what about a Reconstruction Amendment today? What about all the other days celebrating other amendments, like the 14th Amendment, that we don't celebrate? And why is it that this particular amendment is what takes on outsized concern, both in our imagination, on our campuses, and, really, in our rhetoric?

Shannon McGregor:

I just want to build off of what Daniel said on this attention economy and how the First Amendment has been weaponized in that regard very specifically. You may recall January 8th as the day that Donald Trump got kicked off Twitter, that his account was suspended. Because that's what I researched, I had a lot of journalists calling me. It was kind of exciting and a little crazy, but all of them kept asking questions. Because people on the right were, in that very moment, saying you can't take the president off of social media, you're violating his First Amendment rights. And at the base level I just had to keep saying over and over again, the First Amendment protects Twitter’s right to be able to say “you can't say that on our platform.” But the reason that this rhetoric around “you can't take the president off” or “you can't take COVID-19 misinformation off” or “you can't take violence-inciting language off” is because it fuels this attention economy that also financially benefits the platforms. So we're seeing this thread going through all of these things. There's a reason when the day that Ted Cruz had his big, printed-out slideshow of the racist baby books, that he was checking his Twitter mentions after: because the attention economy is so powerful that a sitting senator of the United States is checking it after he says something. And so, the First Amendment is a very powerful tool by which to say you can't threaten this attention; that I am able to get through this extreme rhetoric when I'm on social media as a person who's already sitting in the Senate.

Nanditha Narayanamoorthy:

Shannon already touched on this rhetoric surrounding the misunderstanding about what is allowed and what is not allowed, especially on social platforms but also among other larger private corporations or tech giants. So would you be able to clarify what goes or what doesn’t count as free speech in these spaces?

Shannon McGregor:

Whatever the company says, unless you're a very powerful person. Because as we also found out, I think, in the Frances Haugen Facebook papers was this idea that Facebook had this whitelist, where if you had enough followers or enough people who liked your page, your content actually was not moderated by the same, frankly, not great-performing algorithm that the rest of us are subject to but was instead immediately bumped up to human oversight. And then just today it was revealed that TikTok has something similar: there's a threshold for a number of followers, and if you have more followers than that threshold on TikTok, then similarly you have a different level of moderation. So it's not just exactly what social media companies say it is, it's also who you are to that social media company, or on that social media platform, or within the world at large.

And I think it's interesting because social media companies have consistently shown that they are willing and open to apply their rules differently depending on who you are. But at the same time, many of their policies, if you read them, come from this idea that much of the First Amendment law, to the extent that I understand it, comes from this idea of neutrality towards the content that is protected by the First Amendment. And a lot of the moderation policies have neutrality to the content in some ways, but they don't really, because they have these little whitelists that people can use to get out of it.

What is a problem in both of these senses, both with the First Amendment and with these social media policies, is that they are absent in regard to context or power. And so, because of that, they have entrenched in them the status quo of our society and of the expression that we tend to prioritize—in our case now in the US, still a white Christian patriarchal minority, which is probably exactly who the First Amendment was written for. But it's not how it's historically been enacted in our country. So content that's allowed on social media is whatever those companies say it is. But we've also learned that it is very responsive to public and political pressure. Too many cries of platforms “censoring conservatives!” means that then those companies will react a different way, and maybe not at all, to censoring people who are seen on the political disclosures around certain types of information, certain types of content that are left up, for example, and not taken down. And then there's some revelations by a journalist. For my research, I've interviewed both journalists and people who work at some of these platform companies and they talk about this sort of relationship. They'll say they didn't know until somebody wrote a story about this. So in some ways platforms are also outsourcing the responsibility of their own enforcement around content policies to journalists, to the public, and to politicians, which just leads to even more unequal enforcement.

Daniel Kreiss:

So just to amplify a couple of those thoughts—the major US-based platforms such as Facebook and Twitter all sort of got their start embracing free speech through the course of their early history. Through much of the 2000’s, they struggled on a case-by-case basis on where to draw the line for pornography that's allowed on Facebook. There's a lot of famous cases. The famous Vietnam photograph of the child was one that Facebook struggled with making a call on.5 Another one is breastfeeding. Is that part of a salacious interest or a natural human process and bodily function? Over time Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms developed sort of a body of cases of what's in and what's out that was continually evolving. And again, it goes back to them having to balance between multiple stakeholders. The reality is most people don't consume political content on social media. Most people are there for the sports, the entertainment, for the other shows, the cats, the memes, et cetera.. So, when you look at Facebook's revenue, it's coming from non-political sources, although they've also stylized themselves over time as serving a very important public function. But the result of all this has been very ad hoc decision making. The reality is—and my team at CITAP has long studied this—policies constantly evolve.6 They're very interpretively flexible, which preserves the company's right to make a wide range of decisions and when to choose to arbitrate speech. That has often deeply shifted over time. Oftentimes those decisions seem very capricious. There's not a lot of public justification for the decisions that they make. There's very little in the way of public accountability, and that leads them doubly open to charges on many different sides that they're not being faithful to their policies.

Our team has argued in a series of basic reports, et cetera, that have analyzed this, that they should have the highest threshold around things like elections. The peaceful transfer of power is a cornerstone of democracy. Social media platforms shouldn't let politicians undermine their own accountability at the ballot box. That should be a bright red line, in part because that's a condition for their own existence. If we don't have free speech, we don’t have democracy. And state civil violence is another one. And then public health, which we saw during COVID-19 when lives were online. And even more than that, to amplify what Shannon said, we've also argued for race-conscious policy. And that applies much more broadly to understanding the context within which people are speaking not just in the United States, but also around the world. Some groups are more vulnerable than other groups in any given polity at any given moment around the world. Platform companies need to invest, this is another piece of the pie. They haven't really invested a lot of money in things like content moderation that protect the most vulnerable. And this is why if you look at Myanmar, for instance, Facebook has been very credibly accused of facilitating genocide.7 It's because they don't have language and expertise to understand how power dynamics work, and threats that are against certain groups that have been historically persecuted. So, they need that deep contextual understanding, or else claims of free speech and free expression can be used to actually literally commit genocide or mass violence against vulnerable populations. And this has happened before. We've documented cases.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:

I think one of the things that we have learned is that it's hard to argue against the fact that platforming works. I'm going to argue that it should scare us that it works. And for two points that my colleagues said, I also want to put a finer point on. Daniel said social media platforms, especially in US based social media platforms, the big ones that dominate so much of our space and time, say they started embracing free speech. I would actually argue that what they were embracing was the marketplace of ideas, and those aren't actually the same thing. So in a marketplace of ideas, some people can afford to buy more. It gives economic intent; it is the economic rationale for a social media platform. It is an economic model. Ads are quite literally them saying that some people here can buy more than others. That was the premise of libertarian interpretations of ideas that if the idea is good, it will not only bubble up through democratic means, but it will be presented to others through economic needs. And so, I think it is actually clear that platforming works because then the arbiter of the speech that crosses into dangerous territory is a company or companies that have outsourced their responsibility to democracy but embrace the revenue that comes from being willfully ignorant of their responsibilities to democracy.

I'm going to say I'm not sure that it is the case that, for example, Facebook doesn't know that there are different power differentials in different countries and cultural contexts. I think that it is convenient for them not to know, because there is no political mechanism to hold them accountable for knowing you can do it. There is no mechanism to hold people accountable for that. So it actually is a bit terrifying to me that the president of the United States was powerful enough to diminish some of its cultural power. Mark Zuckerberg was famous for saying earlier in his career “company over nation,” which I took one way to be about his understanding of his responsibility to the public; the very idea of democracy upon the First Amendment to anyone. And I think this then builds over to how willing we are to regulate this. Which is what I think this all comes down to, do we want the regulatory mechanism for managing free speech to be concentrated among corporations? And I would argue probably not; that it certainly is not good for minority interests, but then it is also not good for the economic interest of the majority in the long term. Because I would argue that one of the things that politicians have found is how beholden they are to the actors at social media companies that they then become the primary constituent. And so yes, there is a trade-off there for visibility and attention in an attention economy, but you are also now beholden to a very undemocratic electorate. And then the third thing, the final thing I wanted to say about this, is that we've talked a lot about platforming in the context of social media companies. But as somebody who thinks about public good organizations more broadly, I want to say that one of the things that happens when really powerful social media companies are allowed to opt out of being responsible for codes on their platforms, even though that is their responsibility—and in fact their constitutional responsibility—to do so, they said they won't come up with our own sort of bright red line speech codes. This then pushes that responsibility out to weakened democratic institutions like those in universities and in schools, and in libraries in diminishing spaces. We then become responsible for mediating speech that is beyond the boundaries of our organization to the social media platforms, empowering people to engage in speech, and we don't have the power to counter that. And in many ways they continue to weaken the democratic institutions that I think should be checked on corporate power in public.

Francesca Tripodi:

I’ll just say two very quick things. I was able to testify before the Senate judiciary committee in 2019, and I think it's important how there is this overwhelming narrative that large social media platforms and also search engines are censoring one side of the aisle. And I think it's important to recognize that these are anecdotal conversations. When you look at my research, parallel internets are actually thriving—depending on what you search and when you search, you might get a silo of information on any given side of a topic. I just want to emphatically recognize that as part of the weaponization. And to come back to the broader thing, content moderation in privately owned spaces is one element of this weaponization because this is not actually protection of the First Amendment. These corporations have explicitly held onto their shareholder rights and are not publicly held spaces. And then at the same time actual public spaces like schools and libraries are very much under attack right now when it comes to protecting teachers and students’ First Amendment rights. And so, I think that recognizing that disjuncture is extremely important.

*This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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