The war on truth: Republicans don't care about free speech, they want viral propaganda


Just the other day, Rudy Giuliani said that Americans deserve to be fed disinformation without any fact-check filter from large social media platforms. "Even if it isn't accurate", said the personal lawyer to the president of the United States, about a made up political scandal sourced to him and attacking Joe Biden's family deserved unvarnished distribution. Doing otherwise, he said, was reminiscent of Stalin and Hitler.

Giuliani, who has been identified by American intelligence as a target of Russian disinformation campaign to disrupt the American election and has now been exposed (pun intended) for grabbing his junk in front of an actor he thought was underage, is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the war the Republican party under Donald Trump has waged against truth. The radical right chorus against careful and vigorous fact-checking has been growing louder and louder for almost the past decade, and it has now morphed into anger against social media platforms that are only beginning to take their responsibility to tame the spread of propaganda seriously.

Something of a watershed moment in the Republican war against truth came on October 17, 2012, when during the second presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the debate moderator, CNN's Candy Crowley, fact-checked Romney live and on-air stating that President Obama had, in fact, called the attack on Benghazi an act of terror immediately, despite Romney's claim to the contrary.

Republicans were irate that Crowley would dare to set the record straight, as opposed to allowing their nominee to plant the seed of lies. Right wing commentators panned Crowley for "interfering" in the debate and claimed, with a straight face, that the moderator was merely a glorified timekeeper who should have had no role in fact-checking.

The idea that got a national debut on debate night eight years ago was the true right wing position on truth: that there should not be one, and especially not one that counters their fictional narratives. The right wished to be free to disseminate conspiracy theories, propaganda, and outright lies, without ever having to be called out.

I would be remiss if I did not say that the right, thought was dominant in this view, was hardly alone. The fringe left wanted just as much license to parade misinformation, sensationalism, and outright falsehood, and often against the same target: President Obama, democratic institutions that necessitate consensus-building over conflict, and the Democratic party which acted in the defense of both.

For the better part of a decade, they got their wish. The use of social media exploded, and by and large, the companies had refused to take a role in discernment of the content spreading on their platforms except to design their data-powered algorithms to tilt the scale in favor of clickbait headlines and away from the boring truth.

That's never stopped the political fringes from consistently complaining that they were still the victims of "big tech" who, in their corporate cultures, sought to mildly promote such outragous values that Black lives matter, that unscientific disinformation can cost lives in the middle of a pandemic, and that domestic terrorist and hate groups should find another corner of the Internet to do business in.

The right couldn't be satisfied even as social media giants gave them literal special treatment. Twitter's policy to leave up disinformation posts from public figures with a warning - posts that would be deleted coming from anyone else - only earned it scorn that they dared label misinformation with additional links to reliable information. Conservatives, who are often fond of saying that the answer to bad speech is more speech, appear especially outraged that people had the capacity to get more information.

All of the right - and left - wing war on truth hit a crescendo, however, when both Twitter and Facebook limited the viral spread of likely-Russian, Giuliani-sourced propaganda about Joe Bien's family designed to disrupt the American election - the same "reporting" Giuliani said deserved unfiltered viral spread even if it "isn't accurate." Since the event, Lindsey Graham was prepared to use his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee to launch a political probe of private social media companies until some of his own members found the idea unappetizing.

Throughout all of this, neither Republicans nor their horseshoe accomplices on the left ever made the argument that the story they were trying to land was truthful. They berated social media platforms for being anti-conservative and for trying to referee political discourse but not, broadly speaking, for preventing the dissemination of facts.

That's because they know that they are attempting to establish a counterfactual narrative, and they are really mad at social media companies for getting in the way, even if ever-so-slightly. Propaganda has no value if it cannot spread quickly, and there is no faster way to spread it than social media. It is therefore natural for those whose political and business survival depends on the spread of propaganda to lash out when some of their best lies are stunted from unlimited and viral growth.

What about free speech? Don't we, as Americans, have the right to say whatever we want? Isn't it true that anyone who doesn't want to hear what we have to say has the option to not listen? Whether what we're saying is factual and truthful is beside the point in free speech, is it not?

But that right - which only protects speech and publishing from government intrusion - is not violated by social media platforms' rather mild and recent check on the spread of misinformation. Individuals and outlets remain free to publish the content, even propaganda content, on their own dime. What they do not have, however, is the right to do so on a platform that belongs to someone else, because doing so would be a violation of that someone else's freedoms.

The Constitution may give you the right to keep and bear arms, but you still do not have the right to carry your weapon in my home if I say you can't. I may have a right to peaceful assembly, but I cannot force your business to host our group's meeting. I may love steak, but I do not have the right to demand that a vegan restaurant make me some ribeye.  I may hold the view that my boss is a pathetic moron, but the first amendment doesn't protect my employment should I voice that opinion at work.

Freedom of speech and the freedom to publish simply does not mean the freedom to do so on a private company's platform without consequence. And as I have discussed before, by the very nature of their designs, social media platforms have always been a core part of discerning what content spreads and how. The problem the fringes have now is that they had figured out how to manipulate that system and a system of more accountability may end their gravy trains.

Their problem isn't that they can't speak freely. Their problem is that their war on truth - their war to make truth itself a relative, meaningless concept, is facing a small headwind.