Barack Obama’s sumptuous Hawaiian waterfront mansion is squared away, and he is done reminding Joe Biden that he is far more popular than the present hapless pseudo-president, so what’s a wealthy alleged elder statesman with time on his hands to do? Obama could have taken up surfing or beekeeping or started appearing in movies playing the president, but instead, he appears to have decided to go to war against the freedom of speech. Two weeks ago, he called for “regulatory measures” to rein in online “disinformation,” and on Thursday he amplified that call, claiming that the First Amendment simply doesn’t apply to the social media giants who have so much control over the parameters of the public discourse today.
Speaking at Stanford University, Obama repeated a claim that he has made before, but which doesn’t grow any less ridiculous by constant repetition: he was, he claimed, “pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist,” but no sooner had he said that than he explained that the First Amendment really didn’t matter in discussions about today’s public square.
“The First Amendment,” Obama deigned to explain, “is a check on the power of the state. It doesn’t apply to private companies like Facebook and Twitter.” Obama has not been known up to now as a strict constructionist regarding the Constitution, which he has been only too happy to regard as an eternally malleable “living document” when it served the Leftist agenda to do so, but strictly speaking, he is right. The First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” But Facebook and Twitter (and YouTube and Instagram and all the rest) can restrict speech all they want because they are not government entities subject to regulation by Congress.
In saying this, however, Obama ignores several crucial facts. One is that while the First Amendment does indeed prohibit only the government from restricting speech, the freedom of expression is a revered principle in the United States, and the social media giants exercise an outsized power over that freedom today, for they control all the principal means of communication that people use nowadays to exercise that freedom.
Imagine if a hundred years ago, in 1922, three or four like-minded and powerful conglomerates bought up all the newspapers in the country and systematically began excluding points of view with which they disagreed. No one would have had any problem seeing a serious threat to the freedom of speech in this, and few, if any, would have shrugged it off by saying that these were private companies, so there was nothing anyone could do. The federal government for well over a hundred years has pursued antitrust action against huge companies that had foreclosed upon any competition; if any corporations warrant such action against them today, it’s the social media giants.
Barack Obama, however, says that the real danger is not the concentration of power over the freedom of speech but the spread of what he considers to be “dangerous” ideas. He declared: “While content moderation can limit the distribution of clearly dangerous content, it doesn’t go far enough.” What, then, was the remedy? Government action? So the government can compel private companies to restrict the freedom of speech but can’t compel them to protect it? Obama left this unexplained, going on to complain that “over time we lose our capacity to distinguish between fact, opinion, and wholesale fiction. Or maybe we just stop caring.” Speak for yourself, Barry. “Our brains aren’t accustomed to taking in this much information this fast, and a lot of us are experiencing overload.”
So apparently Obama thinks Americans are just too stupid, or too overwhelmed, to be able to sift truth from falsehood. Or at the very least, he thinks we cannot be trusted to decide that the Left’s construct of reality is correct, that women are men and men are women, that Iran is peaceful and cuddly, and all the rest of it. Obama was worried that evildoers were misleading people: “People like Putin and Steve Bannon for that matter understand it’s not necessary for people to believe disinformation in order to weaken democratic institutions, you just have to flood the public square with enough raw sewage.” Likening Steve Bannon to Putin was a vicious cheap shot from a man who has shown over the years that he is given to them, and remember: this is the man who wants to limit what Americans can hear and read in order to control our opinions, that is, protect us from “disinformation.”
Obama wildly overstated his case, claiming that there was no way to distinguish “a peer-reviewed article by Dr. Anthony Fauci and a miracle cure pitched by a huckster.” Why? Does Fauci publish anonymously now? Can’t people read his byline on it? And hasn’t Fauci himself by this time been exposed as a huckster?
Echoing the Left’s hysteria about climate change ending the world within a few years, Obama claimed that we had to have censorship as a matter of life and death: “People are dying, he claimed, “because of misinformation.” He offered a few parameters for this censorship, all of which were highly subjective and would serve as easy tools for Leftists to silence dissenters: authorities should decide to censor speech or allow it based on “whether it strengthens or weakens the prospects for a healthy inclusive democracy.” Would criticism of Leftist positions be allowed under that criterion? Come on, man!
Obama’s speech was nothing short of ominous. With Merrick Garland’s Justice Department working to stigmatize foes of the Left as terrorist threats to “our democracy,” Obama could soon get the new regulation he wants. If that happens, how long will America be able to continue as a free society?