The Biden administration’s latest online speech plan is as Orwellian as the last
The Department of Homeland Security seems bound and determined to create a US Department of Truth.
Their first attempt came in April when they announced the creation of a Disinformation Governance Board (DGB). That effort was thankfully “paused” after three disastrous weeks in the press. Paused, but not forgotten.
A new effort by the Biden administration is underway to resuscitate the spirit of the DGB in a piecemeal fashion and push it through the front door. On June 16, the Biden administration released a memorandum on the White House Task Force to Combat Online Harassment and Abuse. The new task force represents another partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and a dozen other departments.
Like real-life harassment and abuse, online harassment and abuse is a significant harm, far too common, and more often experienced by women than men. It can harm mental and physical health and is often a crime punishable by fines or imprisonment. Unlike how harassment and abuse is handled in real life, this new task force promotes mass monitoring and control of online speech.
The task force’s mandate to conduct mass surveillance and control online speech is buried in its mission list, which includes plausible goals such as “improving coordination between executive departments” and “l ‘improving access to survivor-centred services’.
A disturbing element shows that some of us are more equal than others in the Orwellian world of the Biden administration. It calls for “the development of programs and policies to counter… disinformation campaigns targeting women and LGBTQI+ people who are public and political figures, government and civic leaders, activists and journalists.” This article leverages a salutary concern for women and gender non-conforming people to immunize some “public and political figures” – but not ordinary people – against criticism. Criticism of you, but not of me.
DHS defines “misinformation” as “deliberately disseminated false information with the intent to deceive or mislead.” We’re creating a task force that will decide which attacks on its incumbent leader, Kamala Harris, were meant to “deceive or mislead,” potentially criminalizing criticism of the vice president and other political leaders. Such an approach would be downright totalitarian.
The attempt to portray this task force as addressing compelling concerns about the safety of gender-nonconforming women and minorities feels like a Trojan horse launched to rekindle DHS’s desire to conduct mass surveillance and control speech. on line. Mass surveillance and speech control are not acceptable responses to harassment and abuse in real life. Why, then, is it acceptable online? Biden’s task force would turn online speech into Orwellian “non-speech,” something that looks like speech but doesn’t deserve First Amendment free speech protections.
The working group’s objectives are to be at least partially achieved by “improving and expanding data collection” and developing “a summary of key lessons learned from stakeholder consultations”. Presumably, these “stakeholders” will include online titans such as Facebook and Twitter. The task force must periodically submit recommendations to the president regarding “policies, regulatory measures and technology sector liability legislation to address systemic harms to those affected by online harassment and abuse.”
The administration is doing its best to define online speech as a fundamentally different type of speech in order to control it. Given how much our lives are shifting towards the virtual world, this should concern everyone. We work online. We go to school online. We visit our families online. Controlling speech online is no less totalitarian than controlling speech in real life.
The Trojan Horse that is the Online Harassment and Abuse Task Force is an attempt to achieve an incremental American Ministry of Truth, and its creation should be as fiercely opposed as the DGB has been. .
Abigail Devereaux is a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Economic Growth at Wichita State University, where she is also an assistant professor of economics. Roger Koppl is a professor of finance at Syracuse University and author of the book “Expert failure.”