Disinformation leads to public distrust in the media. The First Amendment protects free speech and a free press but was not intended to detract from verified reports. England and the Roman Catholic Church controlled its press through measures like prior restraint, strict defamation laws, and seditious libel starting in the 16th century. The authors of the First Amendment intended to thwart such suppression in the U.S. However, as “fake news” proliferates in modern American media, scholars, lawmakers, and journalists debate the efficiency of digital free speech. Never has a conversation on censorship been as prevalent as it is now, in a year of a worldwide public-health crisis, social upheaval and political division. At a time when facts carry the weight of life or death, trust in the media to deliver those facts must be maintained and outlets like The American Mind must be addressed for the damage they cause.
Founded in 2018, The American Mind is a newer online outlet offering news reports and commentary formatted in features, essays and discourses. The conservative publication is “dedicated to the ideas that drive our political life,” according to their website. The Claremont Institute, a non-profit conservative think tank, produces the publication along with the Claremont Review of Books and the American Story podcast. According to the mission of the Claremont Institute, their work aims to “restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.” The American Mind regularly covers an array of national topics, such as the administrative state and progressivism, media and technology, and
health. However, the outlet garnered the most attention this fall after the publication of “The Coming Coup?” on Sept. 4 by Micheal Anton.
An initiative took place last summer called the Transition Integrity Project, in which journalists, academics, and former government officials met to conjecture possible outcomes from the results of the 2020 presidential election. Divided into two teams, one representing each candidate, the group outlined various scenarios, taking into consideration ballot fraud, protests and refusal of the results. The effort culminated in an essay published by the Washington Post titled “What’s the Worst that Could Happen?” that was intended to prepare and steady the American public.
One scenario featured in the essay was Joe Biden winning the popular vote but losing the electoral college. Rosa Brooks, one of the initiative’s organizers and a former Pentagon official, authored this scenario and hypothesized that California and the Pacific Northwest might threaten secession if the Senate did not expand. Anton, a former national security advisor to President Trump, honed in on his part of the essay, claiming that Democrats were “laying the groundwork for a revolution.” He called the results of the Project a “leaked report,” yet the Post’s article summarizing the Project was published on Sept. 3, the day before “The Coming Coup?” was released.
Anton cited other “data points” to evidence the “conspiracy,” like a statement by Hilary Clinton urging Joe Biden not to concede the election and a letter published on Defense One by a former
Army officer and lieutenant colonel. The letter references Trump’s past statements on refusing to leave office and denying the integrity of the election, urging the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to remove the President if he loses in November and abides by those assertions. Anton’s
article writes, “They (the authors) urged him to deploy the 82nd Airborne Division to drag President Trump from the Oval Office at precisely 12:01 PM, January 20, 2021.” According to a newsletter from the Institute for Public Dialogue, Anton’s article was one of the most shared pieces online by mid-September.
The New York Times Magazine published an article in response to Anton’s story in October titled “The Problem of Free Speech in an Age of Disinformation.” Detailing the events leading
up to Anton’s article and its influence in “extremist online communities,” author Emily
Bazelon also takes a broader look at the spread of this disinformation in conservative news media and social media.
Dan Boningo, known for his political commentary podcast, weighed in on Anton’s story in multiple episodes beginning with his Sept. 7 upload titled “The Coming Coup.” In the episode’s description, Boningo says, “They’re (Democrats) not even trying to hide their plans anymore. It’s frightening.” According to Bazelon, “Just two of the videos pulled in at least six million views.” On Sept. 9, Revolver News published an article on Norm Eisen, a participant in the Transition Integrity Project, titled “Meet Norm Eisen: Legal Hatchet Man and Central Operative in the ‘Color Revolution’ Against President Trump.” Their “third installment of Revolver News series exposing the Color Revolution against Trump,” implicates the former chief White House ethics lawyer in a political uprising against the Trump administration. Citing Eisen’s ambassadorship to the Czech Republic and his service as Democratic counsel on the House Judiciary Committee during Trump’s impeachment trials, the article states “there is perhaps no man alive with a more decorated resume for plots against President Trump.” On Sept. 15, Fox News Host Tucker Carlsen referenced Revolver’s story on his show and spoke to a former speechwriter for Trump who wrote Revolver’s second story on the supposed “color revolution.” By the end of September, “the coup fabrication was shared more than 100,000 times on public Facebook pages,” according to Bazelon’s article, and an NBC News/Survey Monkey Tracking poll found 65 percent of Republicans were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the November election would be “conducted in a free and equal way.”
As is typical in disinformation campaigns, according to a working paper from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, social media “played only a secondary and supportive role” to an idea planted by “elite-driven mass-media.” Media
engagement, especially on Facebook, catalyzed the reach of Anton’s story but created a feedback loop that excluded dissenting opinions. According to Bazelon, “the spewing of falsehoods isn’t meant to win any battle of ideas. Its goal is to prevent the actual battle from being fought.” The American Mind and Anton achieved this, stifling discourse and further dividing Americans on party lines in an already turbulent election year.
The American Mind’s recent content has commented on other relevant, national issues like COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. “The COVID Coup,” published July 17, calls the coronavirus a “scam” and the fear of the virus “manufactured by the ruling class.” Protesting the state-imposed lockdowns, author Angelo Codevilla argues the “medical and economic dysfunctions make for multiples of the deaths and miseries of the COVID-19 virus itself.” The U.S. still leads the world in both cases and deaths at the end of 2020 with no signs of abating. Criticized for its lack of transparency and poor enforcement of regulations in the pandemic, disease experts agree the U.S. needs to impose more lockdowns and that it should have started locking down earlier. “History, Like Black Lives, Matters,” published Oct. 10, compares Black Lives Matter protestors to Storm Troopers in Nazi Germany. Referencing a late August demonstration in D.C. after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc., author Benjamin Wiker argues Black Lives Matter protesters villainize Caucasian people, “substituting ‘white’ for ‘Jew’ as the irredeemable racial demon that causes all evil and therefore must be expunged.” Wiker also likens “the politically correct of today” to “Revolutionary Terrorists” of the French Revolution who executed people at the guillotine due to “the very smallest perceived slights.”
When Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory content was removed from Apple, Facebook and Youtube, a group of First Amendment scholars, in their amicus curiae filing, stated, “False speech does not serve the public interest the way that true speech does,” and “there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.” Like Alex Jones’ content, The American Mind’s articles do not serve the public. Their opinionated articles and clearly-defined ingroup perspective hinder civil discourse and damage trust in the media. In order for the U.S. to improve as a democracy, regulations must be imposed on speech to curtail the cacophony of falsehoods that mute verified intelligence.
Other democracies, like Canada, New Zealand and France, treat free speech as less of a guarantee than the U.S. Regulating hate speech and misinformation with power of the high courts, such countries are maintaining and furthering democratic ideals. American media enjoys freedoms many other countries do not, but this freedom is increasingly being used to undermine facts. As stated by Tim Wu, Columbia law professor and contributor to “The Perilous Public Square,” “the use of speech as a tool to suppress speech is, by its nature, something very challenging the First Amendment has to deal with.” The time has come to deal with this issue.