John Whitehead's Commentary
Empire of Lies: 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 rulers contradict these much-vaunted principles at every turn.
For instance, we claim to disdain the jaded mindset of the Washington elite, and yet we continue to re-elect politicians who lie, cheat and steal.
We claim to 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 claim to 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 claim to 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 supposed 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 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 not only a lot of work but can be downright dangerous.
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, 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: atransformation 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, resulting in the largest prison population in the world.
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.
It 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 Number One.
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 usinto 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.
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.
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, was at the heart of Elonis v. United States, a case that wrestled with 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 prosecution based on the content of his posts.
In a similar case that made its way through the courts only to be rebuffed by the Supreme Court, Brandon Raub, a decorated Marine, 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.
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 was asked to 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.”)
In an 8-1 decision that concerned itself more with “criminal-law principles concerning intent rather than the First Amendment’s protection of free speech,” the Court ruled that prosecutors had not proven that Elonis intended to harm anyone beyond the words he used and context.
That was three years ago.
Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Elonis, Corporate America has now taken the lead in policing expressive activity online, with social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube using their formidable dominance in the field to censor, penalize and regulate speech and behavior online by suspending and/or banning users whose content violated the companies’ so-called community standards for obscenity, violence, hate speech, discrimination, etc.
Make no mistake: this is fascism.
This is fascism with a smile.
As Bertram Gross, former presidential advisor, noted in his chilling book Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America, “Anyone looking for black shirts, mass parties, or men on horseback will miss the telltale clues of creeping fascism. . . . In America, it would be super modern and multi-ethnic—as American as Madison Avenue, executive luncheons, credit cards, and apple pie. It would be fascism with a smile. As a warning against its cosmetic façade, subtle manipulation, and velvet gloves, I call it friendly fascism. What scares me most is its subtle appeal.”
The subtle appeal of this particular brand of fascism is its self-righteous claim to fighting the evils of our day (intolerance, hatred, violence) using the weapons of Corporate America.
Be warned, however: it is only a matter of time before these weapons are used more broadly, taking aim at anything that stands in its quest for greater profit, control and power.
This is what fascism looks like in a modern context, with corporations flexing their muscles to censor and silence expressive activity under the pretext that it is taking place within a private environment subject to corporate rules as opposed to activity that takes place within a public or government forum that might be subject to the First Amendment’s protection of “controversial” and/or politically incorrect speech.
Alex Jones was just the beginning.
Jones, the majordomo of conspiracy theorists who spawned an empire built on alternative news, was banned from Facebook for posting content that violates the social media site’s “Community Standards,”which prohibit posts that can be construed as bullying or hateful.
According to The Washington Post, Twitter suspended over 70 million accounts over the course of two months to “reduce the flow of misinformation on the platform.” Among those temporarily suspended was Daniel McAdams, Executive Director of the Ron Paul Institute.
Rightly contending that tech companies are just extensions of the government, former Texas congressman Ron Paul believes that social media networks under the control of Google, Apple, Twitter and Facebook are working with the U.S. government to silence dissent. “You get accused of treasonous activity and treasonous speech because in an empire of lies the truth is treason,” Paul declared. “Challenging the status quo is what they can’t stand and it unnerves them, so they have to silence people.”
Curiously enough, you know who has yet to be suspended? President Trump.
Twitter’s rationale for not suspending world leaders such as Trump, whom critics claim routinely violate the social media giant’s rules, is because “Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets, would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.”
Frankly, all individuals, whether or not they are world leaders, should be entitled to have their thoughts and ideas aired openly, pitted against those who might disagree with them, and debated widely, especially in a forum like the internet.
Why does this matter?
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—and its corporate partners—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 Corporate Police State 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, as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, 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.
More speech, not less, is the remedy.