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Suppose election 2020 wasn’t about taxes, trade deals, immigration, corruption, health care, or culture war.

Suppose it was about information control.

Arguably, the signal questions were: Who will muzzle Russian trolls; Iranian hackers; QAnon hucksters; 8channers; BLMers; Syria dissenters; Antifa tricksters; anti-vaxxers; anti-maskers; anti-war activists; Alex Jones; Joe Rogan; purveyors of election fraud manias?

Who will silence Assanges and Snowdens? Who will smother future Panama Papers and Vault 7 tranches? Who will stop transparency warriors from damaging the powerful?

Who certifies truth? Who declares falsity? Can “fake news” be lumped with “damaging news” to silence both? Certainly the press accomplished that feat by deeming allegations about Hunter Biden “Russian disinformation” (with 50 former intelligence officials rushing to sustain the lie).

Focusing on Hunter Biden, however, obscures a truth: both parties promote censorship. As I write, rumor has it Trump will pardon Assange. Regardless, the push to prosecute Assange — thus to stifle journalists from publishing revelations from leakers and hackers — is bipartisan.

Nor does bipartisan agreement on censorship stop there. Leaders of both parties want intelligence officials to curate social media. Both agree that advocating a boycott of Israel to promote Palestinian rights is “hate speech.” Equally important are bipartisan silences. Neither party protested YouTube’s “demonetizing” anti-imperial voices (banning them from hosting ads); nor Facebook’s decision to purge TeleSUR, an outlet partly funded by Venezuela; nor the FBI’s seizure of the American Herald-Tribune website on the premise it receives Iranian sponsorship, though the Herald-Tribune publishes well-known Westerners. (Banning outlets sponsored by adversary nations might sound appealing, but should adversary nations ban U.S. outlets for identical reasons? At what point does U.S. policy come to resemble the authoritarian censorship it claims to fight?)

Both sides seek curbs on speech. It is arguably liberals, however — erstwhile speech champions — who pose the greater threat. Speech rights, claims Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s journalism school, have been “weaponized”; he recommends greater restrictions. CIA veteran and Resistance favorite Evan McMullin insists the “American democracy movement” must “counter domestic anti-democracy disinformation.” In the Atlantic, legal scholars Jack Goldsmith and Andrew Woods proclaim “China was largely right… (S)ignificant monitoring and speech control” are requisite for a “flourishing internet.”

Then there is Washington Monthly’s David Atkins. “How,” he ponders, “do you deprogram 75 million” Trump voters? “Where do you start? Fox? Facebook? We have to start thinking in terms of post-WWII Germany or Japan.”

Perhaps Atkins’s project has begun. New York Times reporters recently celebrated Facebook algorithms that hide disputed claims of election rigging. The same algorithms give NYT, CNN, and NPR (almost 90% of whose patrons are Democrats) heightened visibility. This comes atop Google’s 2017 algorithms that reduced traffic to alternative venues on both left and right. Biden will support such projects; his transition leader is an avid censorship advocate.

Does any of that sound like a “democracy movement”? Or does it sound like liberals have given up on democracy? Even if you think Biden won — as I do — is it appropriate to squelch dissent, no matter whether you think it dubious?

Democrats (and some Republicans) insist that the First Amendment only bars government from censoring; social media companies can censor all they like. But given that Congress bullies such companies to filter content, should First Amendment guarantees not apply?

Would liberals advocate censorship if the proverbial shoe clamped the other foot?

What if Facebook erased mentions of a hyperbolic 2017 NYT story claiming Russia “hacked voting systems in every state”? What if Twitter banned retweets of Politico’s 2018 story positing that hackers stole Georgia’s gubernatorial election? What if social media “disappeared” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden’s 2019 statement that voting machine vendors “stonewall Congress, lie to public officials and have repeatedly gouged taxpayers”? Or “de-platformed” a 2019 Guardian analysis concluding that those same vendors have “long histories … of obstructing politicians and the public from seeking information, of corruption, suspect foreign influence, false statements of security and business dishonesty.”

What if social media vaporized Vice’s 2019 article headlined “Critical U.S. Election Systems Have Been Left Exposed”? Or liquidated a 2019 MSNBC report that election machines are hackable? Or walled off a 2019 Atlanta Journal Constitution article stating that undetectable malware could alter votes? Or buried a 2012 NYT analysis that said “fraud in voting by mail is … vastly more prevalent than in-person voting fraud”?

Imagine Trump had won. Would Democrats not have cried “election theft!”? If they did, would censorship be the correct response?

Censorship won’t restore faith in elections, let alone faith in the press. Far better would be securing voting infrastructure along with breaking up social media monopolies.

Dan Herman is a Central Washington University history professor. Left and Right is a column written by CWU professors to represent a variety of political viewpoints.


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