The PEN Pod: Tough Questions with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression as they pertain to the ongoing pandemic with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of the forthcoming Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we talk about the responsibilities that platforms have to prevent online conspiracy theories from tipping into online harassment, the controversy around Michael Moore’s new documentary, and why PEN America is honoring local journalists this Sunday for World Press Freedom Day. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 13:55 mark).
CNN had a story this week about a woman who’s become the target of a pretty ludicrous conspiracy theory on YouTube that she brought the coronavirus to China. She’s an Army reservist, and she and her husband have been doxxed and subjected to brutal online harassment. One of the conspiracy theorists who’s been spreading these rumors has actually even been running ads against his videos on YouTube, which YouTube disallowed, but mostly because they ran afoul of their COVID-19 specific disinformation rules. What kind of responsibility do platforms like YouTube have in cases like this, and what recourse do victims of these types of smears have?
It’s a tough case. She, seemingly, has really been absolutely defamed. She attended a military athletic tournament in Wuhan back in the fall, and I don’t know how the conspiracy theorists got onto her as the potential source of this, but she’s basically being trumpeted as a Typhoid Mary of the COVID-19 outbreak. She is being tormented online, and her whole family is involved, with death threats and just the nastiest, most venal messages.
The platforms have been slow to wake up to the danger of these conspiracy theorists. Alex Jones, the most famous of them, was eventually kicked off most social media platforms for a combination of purveying hateful speech and violating guidelines against inciting against particular groups. What the platforms find is that, when they do silence and disable these accounts, there’s all sorts of backlash from a free speech perspective. I think in this case, what it really brings out, is that our standards for what constitutes online harassment do not match the digital age. They require that one person be doing this pervasively and deliberately, and so for him to just simply put out these ideas, may not be so bad. He may be crazy; he may be lying, but we protect that kind of speech under the First Amendment, and we wouldn’t want to empower YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to take down “all lies” and be an arbiter of truth in that way.
“Our standards for what constitutes online harassment do not match the digital age. . . the cumulative, collective effect of it is thunderous and terrifying, and our laws really haven’t woken up to that, and I think the platforms’ policies haven’t either.”
But what happens is he puts up his video and then there’s this torrent of response, and thousands of other people—each one of them maybe only posting one comment—so that in itself, on their part, wouldn’t constitute harassment. But the cumulative, collective effect of it is thunderous and terrifying, and our laws really haven’t woken up to that, and I think the platforms’ policies haven’t either—to recognize that when a collective amasses in this way, it can have a harassing effect and that they need to take action to disrupt it.
In this case, it seems quite clearly defamatory. Her family seems to be saying they don’t want to litigate it—they think that it’s an endless headache, and they’re probably right on that score. But when you have an unsubstantiated claim that is going to make somebody into a pariah and is yielding this kind of backlash, I don’t think there’ll be much objection if YouTube were to take it down. There’d be outcry from the supporters of this individual conspiracy theorist. But I think most YouTube users and free speech experts would think that was a reasonable exercise of the platform’s discretion.
“I think we need to be very careful here about the lesson that we learn from the approach to misinformation and disinformation in the COVID era. I think there’s a real risk that it becomes a justification for calls to pull down all sorts of other content and to shut down debate.”
This week, a group of climate scientists and other climate activists have called for platforms to pull a new documentary from Michael Moore that takes aim at the Green Movement, called Planet of the Humans. Critics have said it’s dangerous and misleading, and Moore has been accused of peddling energy industry talking points and falsehoods about the green movement. What’s your take on this?
I think this is an interesting and kind of disturbing manifestation of the escalating fight against misinformation and disinformation, and we’ve seen, in the COVID-19 context, platforms taking a much more aggressive approach to removing and flagging content that gives false information about health and the pandemic. A lot of people have applauded that, I think for good reason—it’s helped foster a better understanding of the steps that we need to take to stay safe and to contain the contagion.
But there is a dark side—this idea that misinformation and disinformation ought to be removed from circulation is gaining currency. And here, you see what really is an internecine fight among the environmentalists who have different perspectives. Michael Moore—I mean, maybe he’s become a corporate shill, but that’s certainly not how he’s made his career. He’s been this vociferous, persistent, gnat-like critic of corporations, doing his whole series of exposes. There’s a dispute about the factual accuracy of what he’s presenting in this latest film—that’s contestable; I think his critics may be right, I’m not an environmentalist. But to suggest that the film should be removed from circulation, rather than those ideas debated, disputed; facts brought out; he could be discredited; you can bring forth other experts, or you could prove him wrong in the court of public opinion—that’s really what should be happening here.
So I find it alarming that we seem to be coming quicker to call for the removal of disinformation and misinformation. It’s difficult because I think there’s some contexts—COVID being one—where that may be a legitimate approach. But the minute you bring that out into the mainstream and say, “All kinds of political and environmental ideas that somebody can characterize as dangerous or damaging should be taken above debate, outside the realm of our discourse, and shut down and silenced and pulled off platforms”—that, to me, is censorious. So I think we need to be very careful here about the lesson that we learn from the approach to misinformation and disinformation in the COVID era. I think there’s a real risk that it becomes a justification for calls to pull down all sorts of other content and to shut down debate.
“I think it’s critical to remember that our whole understanding of this pandemic really comes through the lens of journalism and reported news. We are absolutely dependent on the role of journalists in helping us sort through fact from fiction, understand the science, know how to keep ourselves safe.”
This Sunday is World Press Freedom Day, and usually it’s a time when we reflect on the challenges facing reporters globally. How is PEN America approaching it this year?
We are always focused on what’s happening around the world, in terms of writers and journalists. And we see, at this moment, some really worrisome and retrogressive policies—the shutting down of all print newspapers in Iran and Egypt, journalists being targeted, scientists being targeted for speaking out to journalists—and I think it’s critical to remember that our whole understanding of this pandemic really comes through the lens of journalism and reported news. We are absolutely dependent on the role of journalists in helping us sort through fact from fiction, understand the science, know how to keep ourselves safe. We at PEN America really flagged the role of journalists as first responders to this pandemic—they are out there getting their work done. They are included in the category, here in the United States, of “essential workers,” right alongside the healthcare workers, the grocery store workers, people who produce our food, who do deliveries. Journalists are in that category because there’s a recognition that information is an essential currency at this moment.
This year, we’re doing a wall of honor focusing on local heroes—journalists who are covering COVID across the country, often at risk to their own personal safety. They’re telling stories about how different governments are approaching this, how the decisions are being made, who’s listening to the scientists and who isn’t, who’s following the rules. Many stories refer to officials and prominent people like Ivanka Trump breaking the rules, in terms of quarantine. It’s the journalists, who are out there covering the stories, holding officials accountable, and keeping our democracy and our electorate informed at this moment. Even with everything that we have going on, it is extremely important to take a moment for World Press Freedom Day on Sunday, to celebrate some of the unsung heroes of the pandemic—those who are out there, telling the story and writing the first draft of history. This is something we’re going to be analyzing for a long, long time, and those journalistic accounts will be the basis for much of that.
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