Facing the Elephant in the Room

Propaganda vs. The First Amendment

Just as we resist the term “propaganda,” Americans panic at the very idea of managing information in any way: what about the First Amendment?!? We have grown comfortable with the idea that any restriction on speech is un-American. So we need to recall that “freedom of speech”, even enshrined in the Constitution, has never been absolute. Exceptions and limitations abound, so ingrained that we forget they even exist. As the relevant Wikipedia page puts it,

A Re-framing: De-platforming vs. Censorship

Absolutism about the First Amendment isn’t the only misconception on the docket. There’s a widespread impulse to accuse commercial entities like news networks and social media platforms of attacking freedom of speech, of censorship. This idea may be sticky in the popular mind, but it has no legal standing at all. The First Amendment begins “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” In other words, only the government is constrained from constraining speech.

A Modest Proposal

This essay started life as nothing more than a problem statement highlighting a Hard Problem of our day. But as it turns out, I do have a suggestion about a way we might tackle the problem of private propaganda. It’s based on the idea that speech has tangible consequences, with the speaker responsible, at least in part, for those consequences.

  • Recognize the truth as a public good that can be harmed.
  • Build a framework for civil proceedings to recover damages for willful, knowing harm to public information.
  • Set standards similar to libel law for identifying “willful disregard for the truth”, including not just malice but manipulative intent.
  • Provide for explicit exception where opinion is clearly separated from fact.

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