Of course, there are laws that place limits on freedom of speech. Those laws place some limits on libel and slander. They create a thin wall of protection against speech that generates public danger—so long as that danger is extremely specific and almost immediate. Recognizing that the ownership of media platforms provides an elevated tier of “speech,” laws have also been written to regulate everything from broadcast licenses to content of news programs. Many of those laws are now gone.
On Tuesday evening, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson engaged in a fresh round of hyperbole in which he claimed that vaccination was “medical Jim Crow” come to America as Democrats force Americans to be vaccinated against COVID-19. It’s a ridiculous claim, almost exactly on par with the Nashville hat company that made comparisons between vaccination and the Holocaust. In fact, it’s safe to say that the hat company’s actions were entirely inspired by people like Carlson—people who are nothing other than professional trolls whose entire job is to generate outrage, no matter what it takes.
It’s absolutely no coincidence that the start of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program came just weeks after the FCC retired the Fairness Doctrine. It was the news that the rules were being relaxed that actually encouraged a station owner and producer to reach out to the then young shock jock and encourage him to structure a new show around daily pushing the boundaries and generating controversy. Their hypothesis was that controversy generates attention, and attention generates revenue. It took only weeks for Limbaugh (and the thousands who followed) to prove this model correct.
The reason that the Fairness Doctrine was gutted was simple enough: Reagan wanted it that way. From the beginning, wealthy station owners didn’t like the idea that they had to hand over their airwaves to people who had opposing views about things like fair pay and equitable treatment. And Republicans never appreciated it that false claims about the left were getting corrected. So they simply stopped that. Reasoning that the increase of television channels available through cable meant that there was no longer any shortage of viewpoints, an FCC staffed entirely by Republican appointees (all but one from Reagan) simply ended the rules.
Ever since then, America has been increasingly driven by trolls.
It’s understandable that a group of men who had heavily leaned on the availability of anonymous press in both directing anger against a dictatorial foreign government and in generating support for a Constitution in progress, would support that press as a fundamental feature of their government. It’s also not surprising that, though the wording of this constitutional “community standards” did not change, the government has since discovered that the language doesn’t protect people doing things like printing leaflets opposing a war by our government, or wearing a T-shirt saying “Bong hits for Jesus.”
The court has also ruled that some pretty shocking things are protected speech. That not only includes cross-burnings meant to encourage racist hate, other symbols meant to encourage violence based on race, and calls to violent action at a Klu Klux Klan rally.
For any online forum, these rules would be difficult to justify. That’s because any social media platform operating on these guidelines would soon disintegrate into waves of hate speech filled with swastikas, racist threats, and personal attacks. Which … pretty much defines what has happened every time someone has erected a right-wing social media platform. It also may go a long way toward why these platforms aren’t as popular as those who make at least a token effort at removing racist rants and personal threats.
It’s not as if Carlson is in any way unique. Rush Limbaugh was a professional radio troll. Glenn Greenwald is a professional social media troll. There are plenty of professional trolls in podcast and YouTube land. Donald Trump was, and is, a political troll.
If there’s anyone who understands the limits—and the freedoms—that Americans’ single community guideline provides, it’s these guys. After all, their daily job isn’t to relay information. It’s to find a new way to step right up to that line, and let everyone else go into a tizzy about what they just said.
For example: Tucker Carlson does not give a single ragged fuck about COVID-19 vaccination. Or masks. Or Anthony Fauci. You can bet that Carlson was vaccinated himself at first opportunity, after being protected by a careful bubble through most of the pandemic. It goes without saying that he doesn’t give a fuck about anything that ever resembled that Fox-adverse commodity known as a “fact.”
What Carlson cares about is finding something new to say each night that will generate outrage. His writers and Fox’s hefty legal staff exist only to discover new ways that the One Rule can be bent, twisted, or exceeded only in ways that result in making many, many people angry. Because angry people is what “win” looks like to a troll. Win-win comes when they stumble on a combination so abhorrent—“Medical Jim Crow has come to America”—that it leaves both supporters and opponents enraged.
Long before the internet or cable news, there was a price to pay in leaving public speech so open to lies meant to generate hate and pave the way for violence (Remember the Maine!). When the authors of the Constitution created that rule, they did so with the full knowledge that there were tradeoffs, but out out of a faith those tradeoffs were worth the resulting damage. And there have always been people who used their talents to elevate their place through demonstrating outlandish behavior and by making outrageous statements. Many of those people are now widely regarded as heroes—especially when those outrageous statements challenged a status quo that was classist, racist, and misogynistic.
But what the nation faces now is a professional troll class that is supported by decades of refinement, mountains of cash, and the deep support of Republican “institutes” and “foundations” whose only task is the daily creation of troll chow. Media platforms like Fox News, OAN, and Newsmax are constantly engaged in deliberate lies framed in ways that generate hate. They are outrage engines, and if they generate outrageous behavior, they’re absolutely fine with that.
It’s absolutely unclear that any social media platform can long survive the assault of trolls meant to drag every conversation down into those things that were mentioned in the Twitter rules—threats of violence and personal harassment. The same threat exists to the nation, and it’s equally unclear that the one rule we have now is up to the task.