At the risk of sounding hopelessly naive, I find it depressing just how much we depend on social media to communicate.
Of course I know how ubiquitous the various digital platforms are.
I dabble in these virtual public squares myself, although this is largely due to professional obligations rather than personal interest.
But reading about how many tens of millions of users one site boasts, or how many followers Donald Trump has (or at least had) on another, is a stultifying exercise. The heart of the story gets buried in an avalanche of statistics.
Numbers, even huge numbers, can’t reveal how powerful these cyber outlets have become with anything like the visceral reality of the outcry that blared nationwide when the tech industry, in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, started clamping figurative hands over so many figurative mouths.
Charges of censorship resounded.
Donald Trump Jr., who had better luck with Twitter than his old man did, tweeted “Free Speech Is Under Attack! Censorship is happening like NEVER before! Don’t let them silence us.”
The younger Trump is right in one sense, albeit not, I expect, in the way he meant.
America indeed hasn’t seen this sort of censorship — but only because, for the vast majority of our nation’s history, there were no Facebook pages to censor, Twitter accounts to cancel or Parler apps to squelch.
But in the sense that this level of nationwide censorship is unprecedented, which it seems to me is what Trump Jr. is claiming, the historical record tells quite a different tale.
It happens that just a few days before the Capitol was briefly occupied by the sorts of people who think taking selfies with their feet propped on Nancy Pelosi’s desk is a patriotic act — no Paul Reveres or Patrick Henrys in that crowd — I finished reading a most interesting book.
The title of Harold Holzer’s 2020 work neatly summarizes the topic: “The Presidents vs. the Press: The Endless Battle between the White House and the Media — from the Founding Fathers to Fake News.”
That I was reading this book while the nation is embroiled in a controversy over free speech was pure happenstance, but it was an instructive sort of coincidence.
Holzer examines in depressing detail how past presidents didn’t merely resort to calling journalists nasty names, but actually wielded the federal government’s immense power to prevent the public from reading reporters’ words.
This is not a trivial difference.
Most obviously, when the government stifles speech, whether that speech is the work of journalists or somebody scribbling away in his basement, it is violating the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
During the Civil War, for instance, President Abraham Lincoln’s administration physically closed newspapers that opposed the war. Federal officials arrested some editors and held them without trial.
Woodrow Wilson, who served as president during America’s involvement in World War I, was if anything more aggressive.
Wilson signed the Espionage Act in June 1917 and the Sedition Act in May 1918. Under the auspices of those repressive laws, the Wilson administration banned certain publications from being delivered by the Postal Service, and arrested at least one editor under the Espionage Act.
Holzer shows, however, that the grim spectacle of presidents censoring the press is not merely part of our nation’s less enlightened, but hardly relevant, past.
Indeed, he notes that some watchdog groups concluded that President Barack Obama’s vow to oversee the most “transparent” administration in U.S. history was a cruel fiction.
Obama even resurrected Wilson’s noxious Espionage Act, which had largely been forgotten, and cited that statute in naming Fox News reporter James Rosen as a “criminal co-conspirator” for publishing sensitive information about North Korea’s nuclear weapon program. Federal agents also seized phone records from Rosen’s office, home and cellphone.
What Obama did not do, of course, was call legitimate media outlets “fake news” and berate them on a nearly daily basis, as his successor did.
Holzer addresses the difference between the two approaches in the final paragraph of his chapter on Obama’s presidency.
“Barack Obama may not have called hostile journalists “enemies of the people.” But those whom his administration tried to isolate or prosecute might argue that some of his actions spoke louder than his successor’s words.”
The censorship that the Trumps, both junior and senior, along with many others have maligned recently is a decidedly different concoction, despite sharing a bitter flavor with government-imposed stifling of speech.
Facebook and the other social media companies, though they obviously restrict the expression of ideas, are not bound by the First Amendment as the government is.
These companies’ brand of censorship, though inconsistent and fairly blatant in targeting voices from the right side of the political spectrum, represents no risk to the sanctity of the Constitution.
(Whether it’s a wise business practice is another matter.)
What saddens me is how relatively quickly we have as a society come to a sorry state where we measure our freedom to express ourselves by such things as posting comments on Facebook, or tapping out a biting tweet.
Perhaps equally unfortunate, we have not turned these sources of communication into an immediate and ubiquitous version of an old-fashioned coffee klatch, distinguished by the good-natured banter that nostalgic term implies. Instead we have created, in the online marketplace of ideas, something more akin to a street riot, with superfluous capitalizations and exclamation points standing in for fists and clubs.
The pandemic undoubtedly has contributed to this trend by depriving us, to varying degrees, of actual face-to-face conversations. These personal interactions, though they unfortunately enable the exchange of the dreaded droplets, are also less likely to devolve into an exchange of virus-free but still infectious diatribes.
But we needn’t be subject to the partisan whims of the digital oligarchs.
Until we can resume the regular conversations that are so vital to constructive human discourse, we can still talk to each other in a more personal, less anonymous venue than the increasingly odoriferous cyber cesspools.
Almost every one of us carries one of these devices wherever we go.
And they work just as well for talking as for tweeting.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.