Will America’s Public Servants Defend Freedom of Expression?
America’s social media barons and big tech companies reacted to the violent demonstration at the Capitol by banning President Donald Trump, thousands of right-wing and QAnon followers, and shutting down the conservative social media site Parler.
Though the demonstrations were less terrorism than lèse-majesté it was, as one commentator put it, time for Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, to “settle all family business.” Dorsey conceded he set a “dangerous precedent,” but privately admitted political censorship is just the beginning.
The disaster was complete when Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman of the Russian foreign ministry, declared that digital censorship was “…a blow to the democratic values professed by the West.”
Good job, tech bros.
So, will America’s public servants defend free expression abroad in the face of backsliding at home?
The U.S. government’s main battery for defending free speech abroad is the Department of State, state-owned media outlets like the Voice of America, and private auxiliaries such as the National Endowment for Democracy (which is funded by the U.S. government). Public employees have been vocal in their opposition to Donald Trump but, now that the “emergency” of the Trump era is over, will they support free expression or will giddy #resistance become eager #compliance?
I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here. After a clear warning we’d take this action, we made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter. Was this correct?
— jack (@jack) January 14, 2021
Foreign authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ali Khamenei, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan understand the power of social media so they maintain that online speech must be “responsible.” Will American officials shrug and claim digital censorship is just a terms of service violation? That’s what you hear when you are kicked off of VK and Baidu, though in the U.S., that isn’t accompanied by a visit from the tax police – though the Tea Party would beg to differ.
But there’s a bureaucratic logic to this.
America’s crackdown on online speech will validate foreign authoritarians’ tendencies and encourage them to continue to close off every avenue of political expression, every path of legal redress, every legislative path, and any outlet for disagreement – all the safety valves. U.S. officials will then tell Congress that increasing authoritarianism overseas requires a bigger budget to fight some foreigner doing what they support at home. It’s a win-win as each side uses the other to bolster its legitimacy.
But it’s not just policy preferences. People are, well, people, and bureaucrats will want to avoid social opprobrium if defending free expression seems a little too, you know, Trumpian. And post-government employment opportunities may dry up just as you are facing the disciplinarian known as college tuition bills.
A bureaucrat’s newfound respect for elected officials sounds better than “I was only following orders” which is usually a non-viable defense, but only if you are on the losing side. At least it will be a break from that hardy American perennial “it’s different when we do it.”
Double standards and a retreat from principle won’t allow China to invade Taiwan tomorrow but they will contribute to regime consolidation, which sounds like collusion to me. The U.S. will face energized Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats and confident Turkish propagandists who won’t have to refute U.S. accusations – they will just highlight the hypocrisy between digital censorship at home and advocacy of free speech abroad. It will be a rerun of the “And you are lynching Negroes” response by the Soviets to U.S. criticism of the USSR’s human rights violations.
Take it from people who know of whence they speak: Angela Merkel and Alexei Navalny, who understand authoritarianism, voiced concern about digital censorship in the U.S., which has recently found favor with many journalists and critics born in the Land of the Free.
Proof of this came when journalists at the government-funded Voice of America (VOA), in an act of self-harm, protested a live broadcast by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo responded that VOA has “lost its commitment to its founding mission.” The VOA staff was clearly anxious a politician would freely discuss politics, but without helpful “context.”
The VOA staff was concerned that a Senate-confirmed official would make an unmoderated address to an international audience, but are they copacetic that Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who has called for Israel’s destruction, is still on Twitter? And that the neo-Nazi site, Stormfront (“Every month is White history month”), is alive and well with an online fund-raising portal to boot?
Putin knows social media control is crucial for regime longevity. All that’s necessary is for American officials to look away as long as censorship happens to 74 million deplorables or the guy they didn’t vote for. If that happens, Putin will definitely redeem that lottery ticket.
Censorship may seem OK when it’s the other guy, but public officials neglect their duty if they equivocate in defense of freedom of expression – at home or abroad. No bureaucrat wants to be the tall poppy, but this is that “speak truth to power” moment they dreamed of when Donald Trump was elected. Well, Trump ignored them and now their own side may be the enemy they imagined they’d fight.
The true vocation of public service isn’t expressed in collecting government paychecks for thirty years; it may be expressed in a critical day – or an hour. Will American public servants have straight backs or will they remain silent in the face of suppression of conscience and expression?
Beijing is waiting.