John Whitehead's Commentary
Are ‘We the People’ Useful Idiots in the Digital Age?
Back in the heyday of the old Soviet Union, a phrase evolved to describe gullible western intellectuals who came to visit Russia and failed to notice the human and other costs of building a communist utopia. The phrase was “useful idiots” and it applied to a good many people who should have known better. I now propose a new, analogous term more appropriate for the age in which we live: useful hypocrites. That’s you and me, folks, and it’s how the masters of the digital universe see us. And they have pretty good reasons for seeing us that way. They hear us whingeing about privacy, security, surveillance, etc., but notice that despite our complaints and suspicions, we appear to do nothing about it. In other words, we say one thing and do another, which is as good a working definition of hypocrisy as one could hope for.—John Naughton, The Guardian
“Who needs direct repression,” asked philosopher Slavoj Zizek, “when one can convince the chicken to walk freely into the slaughterhouse?”
In an Orwellian age where war equals peace, surveillance equals safety, and tolerance equals intolerance of uncomfortable truths and politically incorrect ideas, “we the people” have gotten very good at walking freely into the slaughterhouse, all the while convincing ourselves that the prison walls enclosing us within the American police state are there for our protection.
Call it doublespeak, call it hypocrisy, call it delusion, call it whatever you like, but the fact remains that while we claim to value freedom, privacy, individuality, equality, diversity, accountability, and government transparency, our actions and those of our government overseers contradict these much-vaunted principles at every turn.
For instance, we disdain the jaded mindset of the Washington elite, and yet we continue to re-elect politicians who lie, cheat and steal. We disapprove of the endless wars that drain our resources and spread thin our military, and yet we repeatedly buy into the idea that patriotism equals supporting the military. We chafe at taxpayer-funded pork barrel legislation for roads to nowhere, documentaries on food fights, and studies of mountain lions running on treadmills, and yet we pay our taxes meekly and without raising a fuss of any kind. We object to the militarization of our local police forces and their increasingly battlefield mindset, and yet we do little more than shrug our shoulders over SWAT team raids and police shootings of unarmed citizens.
And then there’s our love-hate affair with technology, which sees us bristling at the government’s efforts to monitor our internet activities, listen in on our phone calls, read our emails, track our every movement, and punish us for what we say on social media, and yet we keep using these very same technologies all the while doing nothing about the government’s encroachments on our rights. This contradiction is backed up by a recent Pew Research Center study, which finds that “Americans say they are deeply concerned about privacy on the web and their cellphones. They say they do not trust Internet companies or the government to protect it. Yet they keep using the services and handing over their personal information.”
Let me get this straight: the government continues to betray our trust, invade our privacy, and abuse our rights, and we keep going back for more?
Sure we do. After all, the alternative—taking a stand, raising a ruckus, demanding change, refusing to cooperate, engaging in civil disobedience—is a lot of work. What we fail to realize, however, is that by tacitly allowing these violations to continue, we not only empower the tyrant but we feed the monster. In this way, as I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, what starts off as small, occasional encroachments on our rights, justified in the name of greater safety, becomes routine, wide-ranging abuses so entrenched as to make reform all but impossible.
We saw this happen with the police and their build-up of military arsenal, ostensibly to fight the war on drugs. The result: a transformation of America’s law enforcement agencies into extensions of the military, populated with battle-hardened soldiers who view “we the people” as enemy combatants.
The same thing happened with the government’s so-called efforts to get tough on crime by passing endless laws outlawing all manner of activities. The result: an explosion of laws criminalizing everything from parenting decisions and fishing to gardening and living off the grid.
And then there were the private prisons, marketed as a way to lower the government’s cost of locking up criminals. Only it turns out that private prisons actually cost the taxpayer more money and place profit incentives on jailing more Americans.
Are you starting to notice a pattern yet? The government lures us in with a scheme to make our lives better, our families safer, and our communities more secure, and then once we buy into it, they slam the trap closed. Doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about red light cameras, DNA databases, surveillance cameras, or zero tolerance policies—they all result in “we the people” being turned into enemy #1.
In this way, the government campaign to spy on our phone calls, letters and emails was sold to the American people as a necessary tool in the war on terror. Instead of targeting terrorists, however, the government has turned us into potential terrorists, so that if we dare say the wrong thing in a phone call, letter, email or on the internet, especially social media, we end up investigated, charged and possibly jailed.
This criminalization of free speech, which is exactly what the government’s prosecution of those who say the “wrong” thing using an electronic medium amounts to, is at the heart of Elonis v. The United States, a case before the U.S. Supreme Court this term.
If you happen to be one of the 1.31 billion individuals who use Facebook or one of the 255 million who tweet their personal and political views on Twitter, you might want to pay close attention, because the case has broad First Amendment implications for where the government can draw the line when it comes to expressive speech that is protected and permissible versus speech that could be interpreted as connoting a criminal intent.
The case arose after Anthony Elonis, an aspiring rap artist, used personal material from his life as source material and inspiration for rap lyrics which he then shared on Facebook. For instance, shortly after Elonis’ wife left him and he was fired from his job, his lyrics included references to killing his ex-wife, shooting a classroom of kindergarten children, and blowing up an FBI agent who had opened an investigation into his postings.
Despite the fact that Elonis routinely accompanied his Facebook posts with disclaimers that his lyrics were fictitious, and that he was using such writings as an outlet for his frustrations, he was charged with making unlawful threats (although it was never proven that he intended to threaten anyone) and sentenced to 44 months in jail.
Elonis is not the only Facebook user to be targeted for the content of his posts. In a similar case making its way through the courts, Marine veteran Brandon Raub was arrested by a swarm of FBI, Secret Service agents and local police and forcibly detained in a psychiatric ward because of controversial song lyrics and political views posted on his Facebook page. He was eventually released after a circuit court judge dismissed the charges against him as unfounded.
Earlier this year, rapper Jamal Knox and Rashee Beasley were sentenced to jail terms of up to six years for a YouTube video calling on listeners to “kill these cops ‘cause they don’t do us no good.” Although the rapper contended that he had no intention of bringing harm to the police, he was convicted of making terroristic threats and intimidation of witnesses.
And then there was Franklin Delano Jeffries II, an Iraq war veteran, who, in the midst of a contentious custody battle for his daughter, shared a music video on YouTube and Facebook in which he sings about the judge in his case, “Take my child and I’ll take your life.” Despite his insistence that the lyrics were just a way for him to vent his frustrations with the legal battle, Jeffries was convicted of communicating threats and sentenced to 18 months in jail.
The common thread running through all of these cases is the use of social media to voice frustration, grievances, and anger, sometimes using language that is overtly violent. The question the U.S. Supreme Court must now decide in Elonis is whether this activity, in the absence of any overt intention of committing a crime, rises to the level of a “true threat” or whether it is, as I would contend, protected First Amendment activity. (The Supreme Court has defined a “true threat” as “statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.”)
The internet and social media have taken the place of the historic public square, which has slowly been crowded out by shopping malls and parking lots. As such, these cyber “public squares” may be the only forum left for citizens to freely speak their minds and exercise their First Amendment rights, especially in the wake of legislation that limits access to our elected representatives. Unfortunately, the internet has become a tool for the government to monitor, control and punish the populace for behavior and speech that may be controversial but are far from criminal.
Indeed, the government, a master in the art of violence, intrusion, surveillance and criminalizing harmless activities, has repeatedly attempted to clamp down on First Amendment activity on the web and in social media under the various guises of fighting terrorism, discouraging cyberbullying, and combatting violence. Police and prosecutors have also targeted “anonymous” postings and messages on forums and websites, arguing that such anonymity encourages everything from cyber-bullying to terrorism, and have attempted to prosecute those who use anonymity for commercial or personal purposes.
We would do well to tread cautiously in how much authority we give the government to criminalize free speech activities and chill what has become a vital free speech forum. Not only are social media and the Internet critical forums for individuals to freely share information and express their ideas, but they also serve as release valves to those who may be angry, seething, alienated or otherwise discontented. Without an outlet for their pent-up anger and frustration, these thoughts and emotions fester in secret, which is where most violent acts are born.
In the same way, free speech in the public square—whether it’s the internet, the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court or a college campus—brings people together to express their grievances and challenge oppressive government regimes. Without it, democracy becomes stagnant and atrophied. Likewise, if free speech is not vigilantly protected, democracy is more likely to drift toward fear, repression, and violence. In such a scenario, we will find ourselves threatened with an even more pernicious injury than violence itself: the loss of liberty. In confronting these evils, more speech, not less, is the remedy.