Editor’s Note: Funding provided by The Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism
Of all the urgent tasks bearing down on the nation’s new president — and there are many — the quest to heal and unite a fractured American populace may be the most difficult. President Donald Trump may be gone, but the core of his unflinching base remains loyal; the country is arguably more polarized than it’s been since the Civil War — and thus at its weakest.
President Joe Biden must now lead a nation in which public discourse has become as toxic and dangerous as the pandemic that surrounds it. It lays out an ideological clash that has been largely scripted and promoted by for-profit business models to fuel the ubiquitous and combustible chat of social media. That world of alternate realities is in turn amplified in the silos of cable TV news, which has turned political reporting into entertainment.
In addition to his plea for Americans to come together to end this “uncivil war,” Biden also warned in his inaugural address that “we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.” And he also named names: “Political extremism, white supremacy” and “domestic terrorism,” he said, are the threats “that we must confront and we will defeat.”
And that is precisely what New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski has had on his mind for two years. In an interview with NJ Spotlight News, Malinowski insisted that any national reconciliation must begin with accountability.
That will mean criminal justice for the violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, as well as any cops or members of Congress who may have colluded with them. And it means convicting Trump, who provoked them, in an ex post facto impeachment trial.
Unity, Malinowski says, will also require an allegiance to the truth, or what lawyers call the “duty of candor” — honest discourse from public officials, media outlets and ultimately the public, half of which relies on social media as its news source.
‘Telling the truth’
”We have to begin by asking, ‘What are we uniting around? And what are we uniting against?’” Malinowski told his constituents during a recent webcast. “There can’t be immunity with impunity. … We don’t have to unite around being Democrats or Republicans, liberals our conservatives. … We do need to unite around respect for law and the rule of law and the Constitution — and free and fair elections. And telling the truth.”
But, the truth is a moving target in Congress, and one man’s mob is the next man’s movement.
“There are some people with whom it will be very difficult for me to have a conversation because they are absolutely convinced that they are on the side of the law, election integrity, liberty and freedom,” Malinowski said, referring to a handful of GOP House members who have endorsed any number of right-wing conspiracy theories, including that the election was stolen from Trump. “They’ve been convinced by their leaders and the social media echo chamber. … They think I’m crazy, and I think they’re crazy.”
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll reported that 8% of adults and 15% of Republicans support “the actions of people who stormed the Capitol … to protest Biden’s election as president.” This shows that the belief in a stolen election has gained significant traction in the American psyche. “The drama, I’m afraid, is not going away,” Malinowski said.
The drama on Jan. 6 was considerable. With Trump egging them on, protestors — some armed, some waving the Confederate flag, some carrying walkie-talkies — overran Capitol Police in the unthinkable siege. In the process, the halls of democracy were desecrated. Members of Congress were rushed to secure bunkers. Five people died.
‘The mask has been ripped off’
“Law enforcement in general hasn’t caught up to the severity of the threat of these domestic extremists,” Malinowski told NJ Spotlight News. “Now the mask has been ripped off.”
While last year’s election may have ousted Trump, there is no sign that the millions of members in various white supremacy factions, ad hoc militias and other hate groups are going to merely shrink into the woodwork. And while these groups have felt empowered by the Trump administration, the fear is they will now double down with the Democrats controlling Washington.
Trump, in his final address, vowed cryptically, “We will be back in some form.”
“If Trump decides to form a third party or otherwise attempt to influence politics from the margins, QAnon will be there for him,” said Jack Bratich, a Rutgers University journalism professor, who studies media culture as an intersection of power, knowledge and subjectivity. “There’s already a right-wing media micro-environment (made up primarily of OANN, Newsmax, Gateway Pundit and the Epoch Times) that will cluster around Trump. QAnon’s influencer-agitators will regroup as a layer in that network. The influencer-agitators will continue to build morale and incite his diehard followers.”
Last year, New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness increased the threat posed by what it calls “white racially motivated extremists” from moderate to high, joining homegrown violent extremists as “the most persistent hostile actors in New Jersey.”
“Over the past month, several Internet companies, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit, removed prominent WRME and far-right-related communities from their platforms to stop the spread of extremist content,” the office said in a July posting on threats. “In response, online groups with WRMEs (white racially motivated extremists) from around the world discussed and shared several third-party platforms they could move to in order to face less regulation of their content.”
On Friday, the White House announced that Biden has directed law enforcement and intelligence officials in his administration to study the threat of domestic violent extremism in the U.S., suggesting a shift of emphasis in the intelligence community from foreign jihadist threats to a heightened focus on extremists at home.
Giving refuge to extremists
Malinowski said he believes the FBI and U.S Homeland Security, handcuffed by the White House in recent years, must step up and do their jobs to hold bad players accountable. But so too must Congress, he adds. (He was recently appointed to the House Homeland Security Committee, which will be investigating the Jan. 6 siege.) He says his top priority this year is to legislatively confront those who incite and give refuge to an alarming number of radicalized white supremacy extremists and militia groups, and the proliferation of fantasies and conspiracy theories that drive them.
Specifically, he is taking direct aim at Big Tech — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube et al — who he says feeds the beast of disinformation and alternate facts in pursuit of colossal profits.
“Social media is designed to radicalize everyone in the United States,” he says bluntly. “Social media uses information collected on each one of us based on whatever our pre-existing political biases may be. If you’re on the left, social media knows it, and it’s going to give you more and more extreme versions of the left-wing ideas you already espouse. If you’re on the right, the same thing happens. It’ a machine designed to accentuate everybody’s likes, hates and fears.“
It is how a growing number of extreme domestic groups have flourished — like QAnon, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the 3 Percenters, all of whom rallied around Trump’s attempts to reverse Biden’s election. In his tweets and remarks, Trump encouraged their conspiracy theories, particularly the one that proclaimed he would win by a landslide, which Democrats and others would try to steal from him.
That Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat suspended Trump from their platforms in his final days isn’t enough, Malinowski said. “In many ways, it was the easy way out,” he said.
Malinowski knows how venom on the internet can manifest itself in the real world.
Facing the QAnon threat
In August, Malinowski co-authored a bipartisan House resolution that formally condemned QAnon — the group that alleges Trump is fighting a satanist cabal of Democratic elites who sexually abuse children.
During his reelection campaign, the National Republican Campaign Committee falsely alleged that Malinowski “lobbied to protect sexual predators.” That was enough to prompt a “Q drop” — a flurry of conspiracy-laden rants posted to message boards, quoting the RNCC press release along with a screenshot of Malinowski’s resolution. Then came a stream of death threats, some of which Malinowski made public.
Now, Malinowski wants to revive a bill he proposed last year that would make social media platform owners more accountable for real harm. At the root of the problem, he argues, is the prevailing business model in which corporate algorithms drive participation and content.
“What needs to change, in my view is what these social media companies refer to as ‘maximizing engagement’ … the amount of time you spend in front of your screen. All of their algorithms, all of their rules for sorting and recommending information to us are based on that goal. … keeping us glued to our screen as long as possible and getting us to click on the things they send us. The best way to do that, it turns out, is with content that reinforces and triggers our pre-existing fears. That’s why we’re pushed to extremes on both sides in America.”
His bill specifically takes aim at the much-debated Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity to social media companies for the content posted by their users. His bill would remove those protections if the content that they promote algorithmically “leads to particularly serious harm in the real world — like acts of terrorism or violence and hate crimes.” And it would make the platforms subject to lawsuits.
Need for ‘regulatory pressure’
That would allow victims to sue social media companies in such cases, as well as make them subject to federal civil rights and terrorism laws. That, in turn, would incentivize those companies to change their behavior — “something they probably won’t do unless they come under regulatory pressure,” he said.
Malinowski’s version of unity will be to enlist bipartisan support for the bill, and get it passed. Asked if he has started reaching across the aisle, he politely replied, “No. We have only been in session for a couple of weeks, and most of that has been taken up by an insurrection.”
The debate over Section 230 will undoubtedly be a test of collaboration on Capitol Hill. There are several bills floating around in Congress, from both parties, focusing on Section 230. The Republican motivation, though, is much different.
Republicans pushed Section 230 reform during the second half of Trump’s term, looking to punish social media platforms for perceived bias and censorship of conservative voices. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) has introduced several bills that would eliminate Section 230 as part of his anti-Big Tech push. (Malinowski’s plan would narrowly modify it.)
Last October, members of the Senate Commerce Committee met with CEOs from Facebook, Google’s Alphabet and Twitter to discuss the law. Republicans chastised the corporate leaders for censorship of conservative voices. Democrats, in their questioning, probed how the platforms were helping extremists to incite and organize.
The importance of Section 230
Trump led the charge for repealing Section 230, trying to do so through his Attorney General Bill Barr as well as by executive order. He demanded that Congress repeal it in unrelated bills for stimulus checks and military spending. He failed on all fronts.
Malinowski has his work cut out for him, according to Ellen P. Goodman, a professor at Rutgers Law School and co-director and co-founder of the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy & Law.
She agrees with Malinowski in spirit. Big Tech is too big, and “they’ve been given carte blanche to do as they please,” she says. Her critique of the big social media platforms goes on: ‘They are structured to reward extreme, sensational polarizing speech. They are structured to recommend content that exploits psychological vulnerabilities…”
She favors Malinowski’s approach as a starting point for reform, at least in theory, but thinks ultimately the text of the bill will have to evolve if it is to become law — first to bridge the political divide with his colleagues, but also to make it stand up in practice and in the courts.
The problem, she says, is it’s going to be difficult to prove what improper speech is amplified and promoted by the algorithms and what is merely spontaneous chatroom banter. It is key to the bill that the platforms themselves promoted harmful speech and action. This will be a daunting task in a courtroom.
Goodman offers as a cautionary tale a 2018 amendment, which removed Section 230 immunity from platforms used for sex trafficking. Now, with more scrutiny, Democrats think the bill was written too broadly and resulted in the unintended consequence of endangering consensual sex workers. Goodman believes that Section 230 reform is not the panacea that many seem to think.
Enforceable code of conduct?
“Section 230 reform is a good idea, but I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think it’s going to bring back civic discourse on its own. It’s going to take so much more than that.”
Goodman is working with the German Marshall Fund, which has proposed several reform initiatives, including self-regulation regarding data analytics, transparency and information practices.
“We recommended that (the social media platforms) need to create an industry code of conduct with other stakeholders, which they can come up with themselves … and would be enforceable by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission),” she said.
Malinowski said he would welcome sincere, effective self-regulation, but he’s skeptical. “This has absolutely got to change,” he said in what sounded like an opening salvo in what could be a white-knuckle showdown. “And if they don’t do it voluntarily, we’re going to have to regulate them to death.”