Disinformation aimed at election campaigns undermine democracy and the American way of life, Elizabeth Warren declared today. And the best way to protect American freedoms, according to her plan, is to, er … lock up people for lying.
At least Warren has the kind of sterling reputation for public honesty that can carry this off, right? Er ….
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday released a plan to fight disinformation to hold tech companies accountable for their actions in light of the 2016 election.
“Disinformation and online foreign interference erode our democracy, and Donald Trump has invited both,” Warren said in a Tweet Wednesday. “Anyone who seeks to challenge and defeat Donald Trump in the 2020 election must be fully prepared to take this on – and I’ve got a plan to do it.”
Warren proposed to combat disinformation by holding big tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google responsible for spreading misinformation designed to suppress voters from turning out.
“I will push for new laws that impose tough civil and criminal penalties for knowingly disseminating this kind of information, which has the explicit purpose of undermining the basic right to vote,” Warren said in a press release.
Lest anyone think that this is a misunderstanding or a narrowly tailored exception to First Amendment-protected speech, turn to her campaign website for an actual description of how Warren plans to make “disinformation” a crime. Note well the phrase “and more” in terms of scope, emphases in original:
Push to create civil and criminal penalties for knowingly disseminating false information about when and how to vote in U.S. elections: Voter suppression efforts of any kind offend basic American values. In both the 2016 and 2018 elections, online disinformation sought to depress voter turnout by telling people they could vote via text, giving people the wrong date for election day, and more. I will push for new laws that impose tough civil and criminal penalties for knowingly disseminating this kind of information, which has the explicit purpose of undermining the basic right to vote.
These are the kind of dirty tricks that would be fodder for public criticism, to be sure. The cure for bad speech is more speech, though, not criminal prosecution, not even when it comes to jackassery about election dates and polling techniques, most of which are usually offered as jokes or commentary anyway. This also smells very much like a solution in desperate search for a problem, too, as well as a pretext to increase the power of government over the market for speech. Just how many voters didn’t show up on November 8, 2016, because a meme told them they could vote on November 9? Or because they sent a text instead without bothering to verify the information first? I’d bet the number approaches zero, or roughly the same number of people whose votes were influenced by Hillary vs Jesus arm-wrestling memes.
But even beyond that, there’s the “and more” to parse out. Pray tell, what would be the “more,” when even the explicitly cited actions would almost certainly run afoul of First Amendment protections for satirical and political speech? If Warren’s proposal to protect American values envisions locking people up for their speech, perhaps we should know the precise scope of that effort. Clearly, she’s thinking past the “lying about the date of the election” memery that appears in every election, long before 2016. Will it include lying about the candidates? Lèse majeste, perhaps? One cannot be too cautious in protecting true American values, you know.
How about lying by the candidates in an election campaign? Can we start arresting politicians who spread disinformation in an effort to get themselves elected? Because if that’s the case, law enforcement should have a word with Warren about her stories over getting fired for being pregnant, where her son went to school, and perhaps her claim about what Bernie Sanders said to her about the potential for a woman to win a presidential election.
In fact, on that last one, let’s not take any chances. Arrest both of them. We have to protect American values, y’all!
Above all, though, I’m excited by this idea. Warren’s plan protects American values by ensuring that government gets to judge the validity of political speech, taking that responsibility out of the hands of benighted citizens who clearly can’t be trusted to check on voting dates for themselves, despite near-universal access to the greatest collection of information in human history. The mere fact that something pops up on Facebook is evidence of its overwhelming influence and utter power, which only a few people in Washington can hope to combat. That’s precisely the American spirit of our forefathers, who crafted the First Amendment to make sure that political speech was carefully vetted to only allow for government-approved truth to be propagated.
I can’t wait for what comes next — government policing of thought. I’ll bet Warren has a plan for that, too!