You might think you get unbiased or balanced news. Wrong. Progressive or conservative, both are biased. In fact, all media are at least restricted or as much the definition of censorship.
The new medium, I believe, will be crowdsourced journalism. We’re already seeing it.
In fact, we already saw the power of social media — crowdsourced journalism through Twitter — during the “Arab spring.”
At root of the issue itself is access to a pseudo-public space, whether virtual or in person. In this article I’ll address social media. We think of social media as different private companies — they are — with policies about certain content, which they have. In using them, we often thoughtlessly agree to their terms of service.
We could write a series of articles about how nuanced and squishy their policies were around Election 2020 which I wrote and even tweeted about previously. In short, there was one policy about inaccurate statements related to a candidate (more flexible) and another about the election process (more rigid).
I would make the argument that Trump’s flagged and now banned tweets were as much about a candidate (“Biden is not the president,” somewhere between a candidate-specific statement and a process-specific one, but could be argued to be allowed) as about the process (“election is fraudulent,” disallowed under Twitter policies).
But to make my case about free speech and the trajectory toward crowd-sourced journalism — my “case” being a work in process — I’ll point to a few analogies.
Analogies always fall short, but abstract issues like free speech as outlined in the First Amendment are better understood — again, even if only to anchor my thinking — in a specific, visual context.
NOTE: for the purposes of convenience, I will often refer below to “Trump supporters.” I mean less to draw attention to Trump as a person than I do to the meta issues Trump caused us all to look at since he launched his candidacy in 2015. The main questions are at the bottom of this article.
1. Public-Private Partnerships
Public private partnerships, or POPS, are cooperative arrangements between two or more public and private entities, usually of a long-term nature.
One example is New York City’s “The High Line,” which received city funding. It’s open to the public between certain hours and is maintained by a private nonprofit that receives favorable tax consideration by the federal government. Here we see at least three ways that government is partnered with a private group — Friends of The High Line — to establish a public benefit:
- NYC taxpayer money given to The High Line to build and maintain it.
- As a 501(c)(3) organization defined by the IRS, it does not pay taxes on charitable gifts. If it structures related activities like gift shops, events, and publishing, it can also avoid the Unrelated Business Income Tax.
- It could be argued that the first tranche of funding, from donors, is also government “subsidized,” as it is tax-deductible.
There are many other examples of POPS throughout NYC, including small public spaces between the sidewalk and office buildings. With a public space at street level, and accessible to all pedestrians, city real estate law allows a developer to build a taller building, making it more attractive to commercial tenants. In effect, NYC taxpayers are receiving those POPS as a tax benefit.
2. “No shoes, no shirt, no service”
If we have dinner at a restaurant and belch loudly at the end of our meal, disturbing other diners, we’ve broken a social folkway. People get angry at us. But almost certainly we won’t be asked to leave. If we go into a restaurant in our underwear, however, it’s likely that we’ll be denied service and asked to leave. We all know that, and it’s a social more (MORE-ay, not “more”).
But what about a homeless person reeking of feces going into a Starbucks, again, in New York City. After a Starbucks partner harassed two black men were who loitering but causing no harm, the company subsequently adopted policies that allowed for loitering and the use of bathrooms by anyone, including homeless people. The effect was a drop in sales at certain stores.
3. Some speech is acceptable, some is not
If you are Robert DeNiro, you can break social mores from the stage and not only will you break a social folkway by not agreeing with him, refusal to participate in a standing ovation might get you blacklisted by Hollywood.
James Woods and Clint Eastwood have found that support of Trump has come with a cost.
4. Private property
In June 2020 a group of protestors associated with Black Lives Matters entered a street in a neighborhood that was a private thoroughfare.
One couple who lived along the street came out of their house, the husband brandishing an assault rifle, the wife a pistol. (It’s important to state that the wife grossly violated handgun safety by pointing it in the direction of the group. One should never point a gun toward anything one is not willing to destroy. That’s rule #2. Rule #1 is to treat any gun as if it were loaded. Rule #3 is keep your finger off the trigger until your target is in sight. Rule #4 is be aware of your target and what’s beyond it.)
The couple told the group, “Get out of my neighborhood!” According to the couple, the protestors broke an iron gate that had signs reading “Private property” and “No trespassing.”
I could make the purely philosophical argument that property owners, too, benefit from favorable tax treatment (deductibility of mortgage interest; green initiatives; etc.), but I wouldn’t go so far as to equate private homes with POPS, since a private neighborhood or home is by nature not open to the public unless one is invited in. In fact, one’s taxes are almost designed to create the right to privacy.
The above four analogies are meant to call attention to peaceable assembly and equal protection, as they relate to free speech. Again, I’m constitutional lawyer, so my statements could probably be shot down quickly. But you get the spirit of it.
Now that I’ve belabored the point with analogies, let me get to specific examples of free speech that we see today.
Networks and Cable News
Very few people who support President Trump give any validity to these two platforms of communication, so to expect to have free speech exercised through them is all but meaningless.
I’ll move on.
In early December, a conservative blog was “de-platformed” from WordPress.
This was the “go-to” online publication for many conservatives. Its existence on the web and its extensive comment section allowed its readers free speech, a voice they didn’t have elsewhere.
The hosting service was WordPress.org or WordPress.com. One is free and the other paid; not sure which they used. But WordPress gave them notice on November 15 that the site’s content was “not compatible with the hosting service’s terms.” No specific examples were given.
That’s where things get very fuzzy — content violating terms — and it leads us to where we are now which today, Sunday 10 January, changes by the hour.
Social media & apps (including livestreaming)
Here are social media which have banned or restricted President Trump and many of his supporters who have large followings:
- Twitter (banned; this was the first domino)
- Tik Tok
Last night Apple and the Google Play Store banned the entire Parler app, a private company launched and invested in by people who support the President. Shortly before being banned, it was the #1 or #2 downloaded app in the category of free social media.
Tonight, Amazon Web Services will remove backend cloud services from Parler, effectively taking the app off the internet. Parler is looking for another hosting services or building its own.
The reason most often cited is that a site’s or person’s content is in violation of a platform’s policies, as stated here by Twitter. The problem comes with the platform’s subjective analysis of that content, requiring them to make editorial decisions are so nuanced or vague as to make them almost meaningless. This in effect makes them publishers, which they deny.
The practical effect of these bans is that conservative Trump supporters are creating their own internet ghettoes like Gab, Quodverum and CloutHub. They are often clunky and glitchy — I’ve long thought that progressives make things with better UX than do conservatives — but they are becoming the only alternatives for many of us to communicate with each other. Some of us use Telegram and other messaging services to stay connected.
What does the online landscape look like now?
In one virtual universe, you have Trump supporters — not even all conservatives but people of whatever political stripe who support Trump and his worldview, and are vocal about it — in their increasing discrete web world.
In the other universe, you have everyone else.
These worlds have distinct and clear walls, defined by what letters come before “.com.”
Many of us live largely online, whether work or play — especially since COVID hit; many of us use two-way video services — so we are now separated by our online or virtual presence.
It’s also quite possible that we could have retail businesses that serve some and not others, such as the baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple getting married, citing religious reasons.
So, where to now?
Why do I like TV series more than movies?
Movies are less attractive to me these days for two main reasons.
First is that movies’ length and the inability to see them in the theater while enjoying movie popcorn and Coke makes watching them on my laptop hard to engage with for 120 minutes minutes or longer when everything is going on at home.
Second is that fewer and fewer movies focus on character and instead focus on spectacular scenes meant to drive ticket sales and use CGI to create fictional persons. I’ve never driven my car over 120mph, and I can’t relate to space creatures, unless they depict a very human narrative. These movies have huge budgets and aren’t funded by big studios unless foreign sales have a very rosy outlook. People don’t pay to see their humanity portrayed; they pay to escape their humanity.
Our need to know ourselves and love others
My interest in character over car chases is because, in the end, I want to trust someone, or at least know them. We trust our friends and family. We know their beauty and their ugliness and we choose to love them anyway.
My favorite shows — Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, GLEE, Lost (except the series finale, which sucked bigly), Mad Men and a number of more recent series — give me a multi-year chain of bite-sized moments (30-60 minutes) to get to “know” characters, see their ugliness and beauty, and learn to value them despite their flaws.
This points to the root of human love.
I would argue that it also and more profoundly points to the nature of “God as love.”
We are loved despite our flaws. The “plot” of each of our lives is limited to the development of our character, for better or worse.
Plot is character.
I believe that the future of relating to each other could go one of two ways. Either we reconcile with each other after January 20, or we will sustain or create peer-created online communities.
With the increasing bans of Trump-supporters and concomitant departure by those in solidarity, Twitter is becoming a peer-related community of those who are against or indifferent to President Trump. It Is supported by ad dollars (roughly 85% vs. the 15% from data licensing). It can be sustained indefinitely because advertisers can reach targeted consumer groups.
On the other side, pro-Trump supporters have created platforms such as those cited above and currently allow dissent, but of course that could also change. There are few advertisers who have the money to sustain extensive programming and content on conservative platforms such as Right Side Broadcasting Network, OAN and Real America’s Voice.
Different views of America
Trump has arguably pushed Americans to divulge their biases toward one of two views of America. Whether or not he is “draining the swamp” is a matter of interpretation over what the “swamp” is. But he is actively or passively causing us to draw boundaries.
To try — as best as I can as a Trump supporter since 2016 — to be objective, the issues we divide over are not only the specific policies but are generally these areas:
- What does “freedom” mean?
- Can any media outlet be “unbiased…fair and balanced”?
- What role does the Constitution play?
- What is America’s responsibility to other countries?
- What is the function of our military?
- Who are America’s enemies and friends, both foreign and domestic?
- Who holds power in America? Who needs more?
- How is “racism” defined and identified?
- How and where do Americans of dramatically different opinions on the above questions relate to each other? And, to go a step further, should they? Is one group on the “wrong” side of history and the other on the right side?
- And (this is a biased question) why would media allow an inaccurate statement about a political candidate but not an inaccurate one about the election process? Doesn’t this assign different truth “weights” to different topics and different consequences to different “lies”?
If we ALL don’t ask these questions and try to answer them within our two “groups” and across “the aisle,” then there will indeed be no more “united states of America.”