Social Media, Free Speech, & The Right to Bear Arms

The term “social media” has never made linguistic sense to me. It seems like an oxymoron. To me “social” implies my predigital childhood, where people I knew walked and talked together, slept together, met in shops, cafés, theaters, libraries, churches, cemeteries, parks, and participated in civic meetings – schoolboard, town meeting, and select board. What exactly is “social” about social media?

What we call “social media” is mediated by transducers: mics, cameras, earbuds, and screens that limit audio and video range and are themselves limited by network speed – all robbing our communication of the scope and intimacy of being together. We can’t see or hear the whole person. We can‘t shake their hand, hug them, look into their eyes, sense or convey emotions except with lifeless emoticons. Text and tweets further diminish human experience.

When I was young, my life was divided between two worlds, the real world in which I was growing up and the dream state I inhabited when asleep. This rich nocturnal world was incoherent, but rife with imagery, people, places, emotions, and eventually lust.

A precursor of today’s “social media” was our four-party phone line. We could pick up the receiver, cover the mic end, and listen to what our neighbors had to say – gossip, news, scandal but it was one-way only. We could only listen – a sneeze and you were outed.

Today, we and our children live in three worlds in almost equal proportion: the rich nocturnal world of dreams and uninhibited fantasy, the real world of people, places, flora, fauna, air, and water, and the lifeless, monochrome world of our online communities. We’re told that young people spend, on average, three hours a day on line – and many much more. Theophrastus, the ancient Greek philosopher, said that “time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.” Is this how we want our succeeding generations to spend it?

As we come to grips with this new world, we must acknowledge its benefits as well as its downsides:

  • We can maintain digital contact with family, friends, and community in the face of a worldwide pandemic, the only survival mechanism of which is isolation.
  • It virtually eliminates the cost of global communication. (A call from Morrisville to Stowe when I was young was long-distance; a call to my grandmother in New York was prohibitive.)
  • It potentiates, although not equitably, distance learning and telemedicine.

But the nation’s recent experience in the Capitol revealed the lethal dark side of “social media.” Experts on how “social media” is used here and abroad are shedding light on its considerable risks to civil discourse and political stability, tallying how it is being used to enlist, radicalize, and incite people to violence.

In a recent New York Times article, a notable historian of fascism, Timothy Snyder, put into stark relief the synergy behind the autocratic obsession of former President Trump, the steaming compost of “social media,” and the mob scene that broke out in the Capitol.

The exploiters of these online communities love to use the First Amendment as camouflage.

Since 1787, our Constitution’s First Amendment has protected, if not fully defined, free speech. Cognizant of social change and technological evolution, jurists since then have both added further amendments to the Constitution and established statutory precedents that interpret the framers’ original language to respond. Strict constructionists have always fought this, claiming that the original language tells us all we need to know. How can that be in a world where change is the only constant?

Clear limitations have been imposed on it by the courts on a host of issues including: child pornography, fraud, obscenity, libel, slander, intellectual property violations, certain “false statements of fact,” and speech that “incites an immediate breach of the peace.” As such, the Amendment is understood as not being an absolute right, as its abusers like to claim.

Likewise, the Second Amendment was an issue in the Capitol riot. Gunslingers claim the right to bear arms is absolute. It isn’t. I won’t detail all the restrictions on gun ownership even after they shrank after Heller, but in general, they include ownership by certain individuals (like felons), ownership of “dangerous and unusual weapons,” limits on carrying firearms in certain public places, and requirements for gun sales. They also support legal restrictions imposed by states and municipalities, even as Vermont considers additional restrictions to its unusually liberal gun laws.

The world has changed, Our founders never envisioned either “social media” that can foment insurrection or Uzis and AR-15s that can, with one trigger-pull, spray a crowd with bullets.

In free speech, the absolutist defense that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” ignores the lack of “sunlight” in many digital communities. In the real world, there are facts, opinions, and lies. Worthwhile opinion is predicated on fact. There are no “alternative facts.” The First Amendment protects free speech but not incitement to violence, and “hate speech” has been defined and banned by many of America’s allies.

Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, put it this way: “We have to pay attention to the way that tech platforms are shaping discourse and the way technology moves fringe ideas into the mainstream. The idea we would somehow get out of it by not paying attention to what’s going on and opening the floodgates to more speech misunderstands the phenomenon of online platforms and misunderstands the technology.”

And not the least is the implicit racial element. Speech law is mostly the output of privileged white males. Would the BIPOC community agree to protect speech often used to incite violence against them and the current ubiquity of guns used to kill them?

With both the First and Second Amendments, it’s time we acknowledge the highly amplified danger that new communication networks and military technologies have wrought and reexamine our view of absolute constitutional rights in this light and the clear and present danger they’ve made real.

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