The Media Today

Trump, Facebook, and the weaponization of free speech

June 2, 2020

Yesterday—as protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, continued across the US—things that President Trump said caused trouble again, and drove the news again. First, Trump laid into governors on a conference call that quickly leaked to the press; he called most of them “weak,” and advised that if they didn’t “dominate” demonstrators in their states, the governors would “look like a bunch of jerks.” Later, Trump addressed the nation from the White House Rose Garden, and threatened to deploy the military to the states should unrest persist. While he was speaking, police used tear gas and flashbangs to violently clear a peaceful gathering outside the White House; one officer was caught on camera bashing a news camera with his shield. The police, it turned out, were clearing a path so that Trump could walk to a vandalized church for a photo op that was, itself, excruciating. (“That wasn’t even good reality television,” CNN’s Jim Acosta said.) Trump stood outside the church, awkwardly holding a Bible aloft in his right hand. When a reporter asked Trump if the Bible was his, he replied, “It’s a Bible.” Asked what he was thinking, Trump said, “Don’t ask.”

For now, we’ll have to wait and see whether Trump’s words about deploying the military to the states come to anything. (Last night, reporters and pundits were parsing the Insurrection Act of 1807 and the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. It felt like a post-apocalyptic spinoff of The West Wing.) But Trump’s threat alone—and the treatment of protesters outside the White House last night—was shocking. On the surface, at least, it was also grimly ironic, given this president’s recent hypersensitivity about perceived impediments to his own “FREE SPEECH.” Last week, Twitter placed (very light-touch) fact checks on a pair of Trump tweets about mail-in voting; Trump, in response, threatened to shut Twitter down, and signed an executive order aimed at undercutting social-media platforms’ (Congressionally legislated) protections from liability for users’ posts. “We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers it has faced in American history,” Trump said, signing the order. (He wasn’t talking about himself.) Legally, the order appears to be unenforceable. Instead, it looks like a case of inflaming his base and working the refs: Don’t touch my speech, or I’ll make your life much harder.

Related: The police abuse the press. Again.

The most important of the refs, arguably, is basically leaving Trump alone. Last Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, went on Fox News and disagreed with Twitter’s fact-checking decision; the platforms, he said, should not be “arbiters of truth” online. Then, early on Friday, Trump raised the stakes. As protests intensified in Minneapolis and elsewhere, the president posted an identical message—“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”—on both Twitter and Facebook. Twitter quickly concluded that Trump had breached its rules on glorifying violence, and, in an unprecedented step, hid his tweet behind a warning message. Facebook left the post up. Later on Friday, Zuckerberg suggested that Facebook would remove a hypothetical incitement to violence from Trump, but had decided to leave the looting/shooting message up, because “we think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.”

Zuckerberg’s decision drew predictable external criticism, but it also roiled the waters inside the company. High-level Facebook staffers took the rare step of speaking out publicly (via Twitter, ironically). Yesterday, hundreds of employees staged an unprecedented virtual “walkout,” in protest of Zuckerberg’s decision, and in support of the Floyd demonstrations. The New York Times called the walkout the “most serious challenge” yet to Zuckerberg’s leadership. Facebook insisted that it welcomed its employees speaking out. (Ryan Mac, a tech reporter at BuzzFeed, noted that the company appeared to be “co-opting” internal dissent to “take back the narrative.”) Later in the day, Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, held a call with civil-rights leaders. Afterward, three of them blasted Zuckerberg, alleging that he “did not demonstrate understanding of historic or modern-day voter suppression,” and calling his decision on Trump’s post “incomprehensible.”

Writing for The Verge yesterday, Casey Newton made the case that Facebook’s management ran into trouble over Trump’s post because it’s “treating a moral issue as if it’s a legal one.” I’d add that the episode speaks to a central flaw in the philosophy that social-media platforms shouldn’t regulate political speech, and that “open discussion” is always (or almost always) best. Zuckerberg’s laissez-faire approach is attractive, on its face, but, as with any laissez-faire system, it overlooks the problems with the system itself. Facebook, like any network, does not, at base, treat all speech equally—some users and types of content have much greater reach than others, in ways that both aren’t and definitely are Facebook’s fault. (Kevin Roose, a tech writer at the Times, pointed out yesterday, for example, that the protest stories with the most engagement on Facebook skew decidedly to the right.) Algorithms are expressions of values, however much some product people might pretend that they are not.

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When it comes to Trump’s looting/shooting post, specifically, it would be wrong to conceive of Zuckerberg’s approach as hands-off. Arguably, leaving a violent post up is as much a decision as taking it down or appending warnings to it. Also, Zuckerberg acknowledged publicly that there are lines Trump could conceivably cross, and expressed his personal disapproval of the post. According to Axios, Zuckerberg reiterated that disapproval to Trump in a private phone call on Friday, and told the president that he’s putting Facebook in a difficult position. (A Facebook spokesperson confirmed Axios’s reporting to CJR.) Zuckerberg reportedly didn’t make any requests of Trump; still, it’s hard to square having a direct line to lobby the most powerful man in the world with the insistence that Facebook’s job is to leave political speech to the politicians.

The point here is that free speech necessarily involves tradeoffs. It involves the concept of power, too. Trump’s looting/shooting posts posed a very real threat to the constitutionally-protected speech rights of millions of Americans; whether regulating them violates Trump’s speech rights is, by comparison, an exceedingly minor concern. And that’s before we even get started on the president violently dispersing protesters so he could do a photo op. The regulation of political speech is a minefield, but it isn’t the only distortion we should worry about; the architecture of the platforms is distorting in and of itself. At this moment, in particular, we need a nuanced conception of free speech that grapples with all this. Instead, the public figures at the heart of the speech question—from platform leaders to politicians—talk in terms that range from the sophomoric to the dangerously disingenuous.

Below, more on Trump, social media, and free speech:

  • The Headline, 2.0: The front page of today’s print edition of the Times leads off with the words, “As chaos spreads, Trump vows to ‘end it now.’” The headline was quickly savaged online. “I find a lot of the Times bashing petty and jealous,” BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein tweeted, representatively, “but this could be a Breitbart headline.” (The top headline on the paper’s website—“Protesters are dispersed with tear gas so Trump can pose at a church”—was much better.) The print headline recalls a similar controversy last year, when the Times ran the headline “Trump urges unity v. racism” after a gunman murdered 22 Hispanic shoppers at a Texas Walmart; afterward, Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, admitted to Gabriel Snyder, CJR’s public editor for the Times, that the paper messed up. Writing yesterday (prior to the fresh headline kerfuffle), Snyder offered the Times some advice: “Perhaps it’s time,” he wrote, “that the Times stopped focusing on all the news, and took a stand once more on what is fit to print.”
  • It’s not just big cities: BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Peterson noted yesterday that small cities and towns are seeing protests, too, and compiled a Twitter thread in a bid to grant them “more visibility.” Among other places, Peterson’s thread includes images and coverage from Pendleton, Oregon; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Belfast, Maine.
  • Reading the room: The protests have been marked by rampant confusion and misinformation about who, exactly, is doing what on the ground. For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Ishaan Jhaveri and George Civeris introduce VizPol—an app, developed by researchers at Tow and Columbia’s journalism and engineering schools, that helps identify symbols spotted at demonstrations. The app aims to give reporters a better idea of the groups, including extremist organizations, that are present.
  • The protests and COVID-19: The risk of COVID-19 transmission has taken something of a back seat in coverage of the protests. Experts told Robinson Meyer, of The Atlantic, that the protests are almost certainly spreading the virus—but some of the experts he spoke with support the protests regardless. Maimuna Majumder, of Harvard, told Meyer, “Structural racism has been a public-health crisis for much longer than the pandemic has.”
  • The new Gaetz-keepers: After hiding Trump’s looting/shooting tweet behind a warning message last week, Twitter has taken similar action against Matt Gaetz, a Republican Congressman from Florida and loyal booster of the president. Gaetz tweeted yesterday that the government should “hunt down” Antifa “like we do those in the Middle East”; hours later, Twitter determined that the tweet glorified violence, and restricted it. (It had already been retweeted more than 12,000 times, however.) The Verge has more.
  • Get over to Galley: This week, CJR’s Mathew Ingram is interviewing journalists and legal experts about Trump’s war on social-media platforms. The interviews are taking place on Galley, CJR’s discussion platform; you can find them here. Yesterday, Ingram spoke with Parker Molloy, of Media Matters for America, and Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University. The “diffusion of blame, with the option of claiming credit for success, is a hallmark of the Trump administration and his companies,” Goldman said. “It’s the Huckleberry Finn approach to management.”

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Luke Ottenhof explores the depletion of the labor beat, and its consequences at a time of overlapping crises in the workplace. “Several labor journalists expressed their concerns to CJR that the current lack of labor reporters—and a corresponding deficit of watchdog coverage—poses an exceptional threat to workers’ rights,” Ottenhof reports. “Paired with a halted legal system and lax accountability standards, this deficit means that new injustices might go unnoticed, while previous ones could reappear.”
  • In newsroom-labor news, staffers at the Phoenix New Times, an alt-weekly in Arizona, have voted to establish a union with the NewsGuild-CWA. Organizers announced their intention to unionize in January, but management opposed the effort, necessitating an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. The Voice Media Guild, which represents New Times staff, says the NLRB process was delayed due to the pandemic.
  • Staffers who worked on Trump’s 2016 election campaign are suing the president in New York state court, claiming that nondisclosure agreements the campaign made them sign are overly broad and not legally enforceable. The staffers say the NDAs—which prevent them from ever disparaging Trump or his family—violate contract law, New York’s state constitution, and the First Amendment. The Wall Street Journal’s Byron Tau has more.
  • In recent weeks, Chinese and Indian soldiers have clashed repeatedly along the border that the two countries share in the Himalayas. According to the South China Morning Post, soldiers from both countries have moved the conflict to social media—posting photos and videos that purport to show their respective sides winning minor skirmishes.
  • Police in Hong Kong have banned a candlelight vigil marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which is on Thursday—the first time in three decades that such a memorial will not be held. Police cited health concerns linked to COVID-19, but the decision comes days after China advanced plans to crush dissent in Hong Kong.
  • And news tickers are back on MSNBC. According to Variety’s Brian Steinberg, the network scrapped tickers—which scroll news along the bottom of the screen—two years ago out of concern that they’re distracting, but recently reinstated them to “help viewers as they navigate through several critical news events happening simultaneously.”

ICYMI: New York Times public editor: Enough of ‘all the news.’ Time for what’s fit to print.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.