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So argues Eric Posner in Slate, who claims, “Never before in our history have enemies outside the United States been able to propagate genuinely dangerous ideas on American territory in such an effective way.”
Well, maybe they have, and maybe they haven’t. But I fully agree that ISIS propaganda’s a menace. I’m not discounting it.
Let’s look at his idea of a solution:
… there is something we can do to protect people like Amin from being infected by the ISIS virus by propagandists, many of whom are anonymous and most of whom live in foreign countries. Consider a law that makes it a crime to access websites that glorify, express support for, or provide encouragement for ISIS or support recruitment by ISIS; to distribute links to those websites or videos, images, or text taken from those websites; or to encourage people to access such websites by supplying them with links or instructions.
But once you’ve conceded that foreign propaganda — if genuinely dangerous — requires rolling the First Amendment back to the age before Brandenburg v. Ohio, why stop there?
I agree that the United States is drenched in dangerous foreign propaganda. It’s warping people’s minds in ways I could never have conceived. But it’s hardly limited to ISIS, and ISIS, at least, doesn’t yet have nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them.
If on national security grounds we should ban access to websites that glorify ISIS (and who defines what “glorifying” is?), it’s absolutely intellectually coherent, and surely more urgent, to ban access to websites that glorify or express support for Vladimir Putin. He is — as of now, and to the best of my knowledge — a far greater threat to a greater number of Americans than ISIS, not least because the Kremlin’s propaganda is so much more sophisticated.
Once we’ve settled on eviscerating the First — and there are good national security grounds for doing it, I agree — how do we deal with the precedent it sets? Most Americans truly have no idea that freedom of expression, as they know it now, really only dates back to 1969. A staggering number of the millennials are actively hostile to the underlying principle:
The Pew Research Center found that millennials were the most likely of any age group to agree that government should have the authority to stop people from saying things that offend minorities, while Democrats were nearly twice as likely as Republicans to favor such bans.
The result comes amid a growing campus movement to ban “microaggressions” and create “safe spaces” free from statements deemed offensive to “marginalized” groups, including racial, ethnic and LGBT minorities.
Thirty-five percent of Democrats supported such bans as opposed to 18 percent of Republicans, along with 27 percent of those in “Generation X,” ages 35-50, 24 percent of Baby Boomers, ages 51-69, and 21 percent of those 70 and older.
If we roll back the First — even a little bit — to keep people from looking at dangerous propaganda, what do you expect this generation to do with that legal precedent?
Posner adds, casually,
One worry about such a law is that it would discourage legitimate ISIS-related research by journalists, academics, private security agencies, and the like. But the law could contain broad exemptions for people who can show that they have a legitimate interest in viewing ISIS websites. Press credentials, a track record of legitimate public commentary on blogs and elsewhere, academic affiliations, employment in a security agency, and the like would serve as adequate proof.
So it sounds as if I could get a licence to look at it pretty easily, right? I guess Posner’s not really suggesting that his First Amendment rights be abridged. Nor mine. As long as you’re a member of a credentialed elite, you’d be able to look at foreign propaganda for yourself to decide whether it’s dangerous.
It’s a hell of a dangerous path. As I argued to my friend Mustafa Akyol in 2011 — in Turkey, a mere four years ago — “Once you begin to set legal boundaries on political speech, there is never an end to it.” That was only four years ago.
Andrew Wilson identifies four types of Russian propaganda:
- Propaganda as confusion: “The West’s first point of vulnerability is indeed its immediate judgment (or lack of judgment) of events. Its second point of vulnerability is Attention Deficit Disorder. In modern news cycles there is little time to actually think before the cycle moves on. For the mass audience at least, Russian propaganda only has to work until then.”
- Nudge effects: “The second type of Russian propaganda is less about creating confusion and is more about “nudge effects.” It works by finding parties, politicians, and points-of-view that are already sure of their world-view rather than confused, and giving them a nudge—so long as these views are usefully anti-systemic. For this type of Russian propaganda there is no such thing as strange bedfellows. Left or right, nationalist or separatist, jihadist or Islamophobic— all have featured on RT.”
- Propaganda at Home: Mobilizing the Putin Majority: “Russia’s propaganda is Janus-faced; though a metaphor closer to home might be the double-headed Russian eagle. If the point of pluralistic propaganda abroad is to nudge or confuse, domestic propaganda is monopolistic.”
- Alternative realities: “In the world between Russia and the West, not surprisingly perhaps, there is a fourth, hybrid type of propaganda. 89% unanimity is beyond Russia’s reach, there is relative freedom of speech, and rival narratives, both pro-Western and loyalist, already exist. So the purpose of Russian propaganda in the ‘near abroad’ is to create parallel alternative realities. Not just an alternative message, but an alternative reality, with a cast of supporting characters to deliver it. In Russia, the supporting cast is less important, the media itself is now the main event. In the West, Russian propaganda may “nudge” key actors, but it doesn’t create them. In the “near abroad” of other former Soviet states, however, the media message is accompanied by a virtual chorus of pro-Russian parties, politicians, NGOs, and even Churches.”
Number three isn’t our problem, one might argue, but 1-4 really are. Can you think of a better strategy for countering this than rolling back the First?