Religion & Liberty Online

Warren wants to stop Russia from spreading disinformation, like she does

Today is the Iowa caucuses. For Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), it may be a campaign-defining day. Her support has been waning in the polls in what should be one of her strongest states. If she doesn’t garner at least 15% support, she won’t get any Iowan delegates and likely won’t end up the Democratic party’s presidential nominee. The excitement and tension is palpable. Can’t you feel it? (No? Just me?)

Well, I’m excited because Warren has run a unique campaign. What’s unique about it? As has become a catchphrase of sorts for her, no matter what the issue is, she’s “got a plan for that.”

Indeed, with the possible exception of entrepreneur Andrew Yang, she is the candidate with the most — and most detailed — plans. And just last week, she rolled out another one: her plan for “Fighting Digital Disinformation.”

So far, I’ve yet to see a plan from Warren that I actually like, and this is no exception. But to her credit, at least she gives people something to interact with. There is no question what she would try to do — and how she’d try to do it — if she were to become our next president.

So what would Warren do about digital disinformation?

The plan begins by noting documented attempts by Russia to influence the 2016 election through “creating fraudulent accounts on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and using them to post and spread false and inflammatory information.” She continues:

These efforts had three main goals: creating deeper divisions among voters on particular issues; discrediting or promoting particular candidates; and suppressing the vote.

Now, I think it’s important to stop for a minute and explain a little of what this actually looked like, because Warren doesn’t really do that, and the reality on the ground is one cause for my skepticism.

First, social media, perhaps especially Twitter, is full of trolls. Trolls are the sort of people who are just looking to get people riled up. The more clicks, responses, likes, and so on a post has, the more attention it tends to get. So, if trolls can goad a person into embarrassing himself — or herself — then they’ve done their job. That person got “owned,” and now other people are talking about it.

Trolls may be annoying, but there is nothing inherently illegal about trolling. Yes, Russian trolls did seek to deepen our political divisions. However, the primary means of doing that is simply sharing, commenting, and liking things Americans were already arguing about. Removing the mirror from the bathroom wall won’t make one’s acne go away. Russians haven’t divided us. They just held up a mirror to the division that was already there.

As far as “false and inflammatory information” goes, this is a little trickier. Like Warren, I certainly don’t like the idea of people spreading misinformation or disinformation with the hope of tricking people. But again, we do plenty of that on our own. One does not need to visit a .ru website to find conspiracy theories about one’s political opponents. Political talk radio alone has more than enough. I don’t doubt that the Russians came up with some of the fake news people shared in 2016, but I’m sure plenty of it was, once again, just them spreading around what we were already saying.

Last — before I get back to Warren and her plan — I think it is useful to reflect on the experience of disinformation sharing on social media. Documenting how often fake news is shared doesn’t tell us anything about how it was received. This is admittedly anecdotal, but I can’t think of an instance on Facebook when someone shared an article from a shady source without a friend very quickly responding, “Fake.” Similarly, it is not uncommon for doctored photos to be met with “Photoshopped.” The great thing about social media is that, unlike traditional media, it is social — it has a built-in feedback mechanism.

Now, that feedback can be bad just as well as good, but the point still stands that in the aggregate the American people are not a bunch of rubes so easily duped by the latest Russia Today article. To the extent that people share what they are reading on social media, what they are reading is more likely to be challenged by others.

This is something Warren ought to know. She’s had first-hand experience. According to Politifact just last October:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren escalated her battle to break up Facebook by posting an ad that intentionally included a false account about Mark Zuckerberg backing President Donald Trump.

Warren’s goal was to show that the social media giant allows misinformation by Trump.

“Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election,” the Oct. 10 ad began. “You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking, ‘how could this possibly be true?'”

The ad then pivoted to a disclaimer — no, the Facebook CEO did not endorse Trump — before attacking Facebook: “What Zuckerberg *has* done is given Donald Trump free rein to lie on his platform — and then to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out their lies to American voters. If Trump tries to lie in a TV ad, most networks will refuse to air it. But Facebook just cashes Trump’s checks.”

So, they fact-checked Warren’s claim. What did they find?

Facebook does have a partnership with third-party fact-checkers — including PolitiFact — to debunk viral hoaxes and demote that content. But Facebook exempts politicians from the fact-checking program, stating that it won’t “referee political debates” or block a politician’s speech from an audience. …

Facebook has set rules about transparency to show who paid for ads. But it doesn’t restrict political content.

Good thing for Warren that Facebook cares more about Warren’s right to spread false and misleading information about Facebook on Facebook than she does, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to spread her ad on Facebook!

As for TV, Politifact found:

Broadcasters are bound by [Section 315 of the federal Communications Act of 1934] and therefore can’t reject a presidential candidate’s ad, even if contains false information. (The candidates do have to abide by disclosure rules to make it clear who paid for the ad.)

Every election season, some candidates argue that they have been unfairly attacked and that broadcasters should take down ads, wrote David Oxenford, a lawyer who has represented broadcasters for decades and is a partner at Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP.

However, “broadcasters can’t censor a candidate ad, so they can’t reject it (or remove it from the air) no matter what its content is,” Oxenford wrote.

In short, Warren is also wrong about TV ads, due to a law that is more than 85 years old. There is a certain practicality about this law that I appreciate: Most people can’t outright lie to us on TV, but if our politicians were barred from lying, how would they promote themselves?

Warren’s plan acknowledges that social media companies are actually doing a lot to fight disinformation, but she fears it might not be enough, or maybe they will stop someday. The fact that these are private platforms protected by freedom of speech seems to be of no concern to her.

It is also worth noting that freedom of speech is not a legal absolute. In extreme cases — such as libel, slander, fraud, or credible death threats — a person can face civil and even criminal penalties already.

But that’s not enough for Warren. She wants a lot more state policing of your data and speech. In a boldly unpopular move, she even wants social media companies to share more of your data. It’s not enough that they sometimes share it with advertisers. She wants them to be compelled to share it with the government, as well. She wants more civil and criminal penalties, too. In short, she wants more speech — and specifically political speech — to be punishable by law.

This seems alarmingly short-sighted to me. Presumably, Warren is assuming that she — or someone like her — will always get to do the policing. But according to our current president, CNN, the New York Times, and other traditional outlets are “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.” A good practice for evaluating the quality of one’s desired policy is to ask, “What would people of the opposite political persuasion do with this increased government power?” How does she think someone like President Trump would use this kind of power?

Here’s a better plan: Let’s trust the American people to watch out for each other, call out false news, and debate our various, often crazy, political narratives. Let’s trust private companies that are already actively trying to crack down on foreign misinformation will continue to do so. And let’s trust that when they fail, they will cultivate a reputation that will turn people toward their competitors.

Lastly, if Warren would really like to do something about digital disinformation, I suggest she start by being the change she wants to see and keeping her own disinformation in check.

Image: Elizabeth Warren [(CC BY)]

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.