Americans old metaphors about free speech & debate don’t work with social media. But we still cling to them says Barb McQuade

I just read Barb McQuade’s new book. Attack from Within. How Disinformation is Sabotaging America. I had planned to go see her in person at the Commonwealth Club and ask her some questions, but it was sold out, plus I knew what would happen, the first person at the mic would say, “I don’t have a question so much as a 3 part comment ” and talk for 5 minutes.” (I’m guilty of that myself, I even used that phrasing as a joke line with my friend Cory Doctorow and Annalee Newitz at his book reading for Red Team Blues. )

My goal when asking book authors questions is to help them amplify the parts I see as important in a memorable way. Especially for an audience that needs to hear it, but will likely never read the book.

So when I heard Barb was going to be on the Nicole Sandler show I wrote Nicole and said, “I think the most important point Barb makes in the book is that with social media our old metaphors of speech & debate are out of date and they are being used against us. Please get Barb to repeat this, with examples! Go right to Chapter 5, Why America is Particularly Vulnerable to Disinformation”

Well, as it turned out there was a scheduling issue with Barb on Tuesday, so I called in and got to repeat some of her important insights and talk about what Barb identified as failures in law enforcement, legislation and business and her proposed solutions.

I’m a slow writer but fast talker, here’s a link to me calling into the show talking about all this, in my piece below I just cover a couple of key points.

This quote from Chapter 5 is the set up I still hear from people on the left. I call it the 1st Amendment, “Free Speech” platitude line.

First, our constitutional commitment to free speech is enshrined in the First Amendment and regarded by the left and the right with a near religious reverence. As a result, many of us embrace the view that we would defend the right of our neighbors to express even the most offensive ideas, because their right to express them is essential to democracy. And so with few exceptions people are free to say anything, even if their statements are factually incorrect or, worse, intentionally deceptive.

Attack from Within: How Disinformation Is Sabotaging America, by Barb McQuade. Chapter 5

It’s the old, “I don’t like what they have to say, but I’ll fight to the death their right to say it!” line.
Very noble! But does that mean you’ll defend to the death the “right” of 5,000 bots out of Russia to amplify intentional lies about our election? What if your “neighbor” is in Lubbock Texas and calls for the killing of election officials AND THEIR KIDS, who live in Arizona? (True story. Texas man sentenced to 3½ years for threatening Arizona election workers, officials)

In the book Barb talks about how disinformation can lead to political violence. She also gets into WHY actions aren’t taken by law enforcement in the section, titled, “Our Reluctance To Investigate”
This was something that I knew about, from the great work by Reuters’ reporters Linda So and Jason Szep.
U.S. election workers get little help from law enforcement as terror threats mount

McQuade points out how the history of the FBI abuses, as revealed by the Church Committee, led to the Domestic Investigation Operations Guide (DIOG) and how that led to FBI’s failure to investigate Jan 6th insurrectionists, EVEN THOUGHT THEY SHOULD HAVE BEEN monitoring them on social media.

“The FBI’s shameful history of infringing on civil liberties, with its counterintelligence operation of the 1960s and ’70s that targeted civil rights leaders in Vietnam War protesters, makes the agency reluctant to investigate crimes that touch on Free Speech or assembly. “

Attack from Within: How Disinformation Is Sabotaging America, by Barb McQuade. Chapter 5

If I was interviewing her I’d ask her to explain why serious criminal threats to judges, prosecutors, witnesses and jurors, as well as public health and election officials, aren’t prosecuted. I’ve read the excuses used by state & local law enforcement, as well as prosecutors. I’ve been writing about this for a long time. I wouldn’t just accept the standard answer I hear from the FBI or former prosecutors.

In the book she gives the excuse used by the FBI to NOT identify the January 6th threat online, despite social media posts openly indicating it was coming. Then she quotes the head of the FBI INCORRECTLY saying to the January 6th Committee that the FBI was “not allowed… to just sit and monitor social media and look at one person’s posts to see if maybe something would happen just in case That we’re not allowed to do.”
Barb CORRECTLY says BUT THEY ARE! And she links to AG guidelines on assessments for protective purposes, for special events.

(BTW, the other group that failed here was the Secret Service. THEY were in charge of evaluating the groups at the January 6th event and they did NOT list The Proud Boys as a threat, despite a history of violence. )

As an activist and blogger I’ve learned over the years to follow up on the author’s suggested solutions, so I’d ask Barb:
1) Who is fighting against any positive change?
2) Who is spending big bucks and lobbying against change?
3) Do the people who WANT change have any political power? Leverage?
4) Who is fighting to BLOCK change from WITHIN?
5) What can the public do?

Barb’s book answered one of my questions: Who is fighting positive change from WITHIN? The FBI.
And she explains some reasons why.
1) They are clinging to their old metaphors of who are the domestic terrorists. They don’t want to investigate cases of threats from the right wing, so they lump them all into “1st Amendment issues” and “protected political speech.”

2) They are under RW political pressure. When school boards were getting death threats, and school boards asked the FBI to investigate, the right wing LIED and said “The FBI is going after us for a difference of opinion!” Jim Jordan spread that disinformation by holding a bogus government weaponization committee. He subpoenaed FBI Director Christopher Wray about the FBI’s “misuse of federal criminal and counterterrorism resources” to target parents at school board meetings.

3) They are overwhelmed by the scale and scope of the disinformation and threats. If it’s not a priority and they don’t have the budget, they ignore the cases.

I get tired of “documenting the atrocities” as Atrios likes to say, so if I was interviewing Barb I’d get her to give some examples of her proposed solutions working.

BTW, when I coach book authors to prepare them for the media, I have them tell a story that illustrates a problem and a solution. Since Barb wasn’t on my call with Nicole I gave an example I knew of her solutions working.

Since I’m an election worker, I looked into what was being done about threats to election workers. Did you know that in 2021 the Justice Department set up an Election Threats Task Force? They help local and state election officials investigate and prosecute people who made threats to election officials on social media. Here’s a list of successful prosecution from August 2023. Just this week the DOJ announced a Massachusetts man was sentenced to three years and six months in prison for sending a communication containing a bomb threat to an election official in the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office. 

The task force having the resources and the priority of prosecuting the case is great, and it helps with a change in attitude from law enforcement about what they CAN and SHOULD be doing. But of course the huge orange elephant in the room is the lack of action taken about the threats and harassments of elected officials made by Donald Trump.

I know that Barb has been asked many times, “Why can’t we do anything about the biggest spreader of disinformation and threats, Donald Trump?” It’s the same question I ask weekly to Glenn Kirschner. So instead I’d ask her about Chapter 9, how do we “Mitigate The Harms to Public Safety and National Security.”

She tells the story of the prosecution of the men who plotted to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. On the Sister’s In Law podcast she talked about working in national security at the US attorney’s office in Detroit. There she learned that the FBI refers to the time before an attack as, “left of boom.” The phrase connotes a visual image of a timeline, on which “boom” is the attack itself’ any point left of boom is a time before the attack.

What surprised me about that story was how there is no domestic terrorism statute that would allow “the FBI to act left of boom by using the same tactics they use in international terrorism cases.” This sounds like a good idea, help the FBI to investigate threats. But when I read that my mind jumped to “The FBI will use this power to go after LEFT wing groups! They will keep ignoring RIGHT wing groups!”

And this is where people on the left are blocking change, and the reasons are related to old metaphors and current history. Oregon passed a law that targeted the far right, but civil rights groups pointed out it is open to misuse against climate and racial justice activists. As, Natasha Lennard wrote in the Intercept.

THERE ARE ALREADY ample laws on the books and tools available to police should they wish to take on extremist violence overwhelmingly perpetrated by the far right. But it is not for lack of capacity or resources that police in the state have regularly ignored these groups; there is a well-established pattern of police support for, and indeed membership of, civilian far-right organizations, including the Oath Keepers militia.

Oregon Domestic Terrorism Law Targets the Far Right. Here’s How It’ll Backfire., Natasha Lennard. April 24, 2023 The Intercept

So it’s more than just having laws on the books, it’s about how we define terms, categorize people and groups and then who is actually prioritized for investigation and prosecution.

Think about how the right wing media and politicians are calling convicted insurrectionists hostages. The FBI has prosecuted people in right wing groups that clearly are domestic terrorists. There are hundreds of convicted insurrectionists with ties to known domestic terrorism groups. The FBI needs to keep an eye on these people with a history of threats and actual violence. It’s a threat to public safety if they don’t.

But if everyone is REPOSTING that phrase hostage, under the guise of reporting on Donald Trump, we are spreading that disinformation about who those people are and what those groups they belong to are doing.

So, since I always like to end on what we in the public do. I made a graphic to illustrate the point I learned from Marcy Wheeler about spreading disinformation, “Don’t be a Data Mule for Disinformation!

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