Information Control in the Age of Trump

 /  Nov. 18, 2018, 4:52 p.m.

Trump Media

Gage Skidmore

When the White House banned CNN’s Kaitlan Collins from attending an open press event in July, political commentators threw the word “censorship” around. The White House’s move was unprecedented—no major news network’s White House correspondent had ever before been uninvited from a major White House event for doing their job, which is to ask tough questions. The president’s decision to kick a reporter out of the White House represents a larger trend of the administration deliberately manipulating the information that is released to the American public.

The Collins incident was not the only time censorship was in the public eye over the summer—a month later, accusations of censorship re-emerged. This time, however, the president was the accuser. Trump denounced large social media organizations for engaging in what he believed were acts of censorship against American conservatives. His remarks came just a few days after Twitter suspended the account of right-wing commentator Alex Jones for violating the company’s abusive behavior policy. Trump tweeted, “Censorship is a very dangerous thing & absolutely impossible to police. Let everybody participate, good & bad, and we will all just have to figure it out!” A few days later, at a rally, he added that “You can’t have censorship. You can't pick one person and say, 'We don't like what he's been saying, he's out.'"

The irony is clear. Trump made that comment during the same month that he kicked out Kaitlan Collins because he disliked what she had been asking. Earlier in November, CNN’s Jim Acosta had his press pass revoked for “placing his hands on” a young intern. Coincidentally, Acosta also happened to be asking the president a number of tough questions about Trump’s demonization of the “migrant caravan” supposedly heading for the US border. But the truly amazing part of the Acosta story is not that he was barred from the White House. The day after the ordeal occurred, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted out a video that appeared to be doctored by InfoWars, which showed Acosta “chopping” at the intern’s arm. This frightening development signals that the Trump White House has continued to push the boundaries of government power, moving beyond ignoring the truth or making unsubstantiated assertions and into the realm of creating video-edited false truths.

Unfortunately, the White House’s decisions regarding both Collins and Acosta fit into the grander narrative of the Trump administration quite well. One of its hallmark traits is its tireless devotion to manipulating the information that ordinary Americans process every day, either by presenting a very one-sided version of facts or deliberately leaving the realm of facts altogether. The president’s understanding of censorship is reductionist and simplistic. He is correct that “you can’t have censorship” in the sense that the First Amendment mandates that Congress “shall make no law [...] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” But many modern questions of censorship and information control are complex enough that “you can’t have censorship” is not incredibly helpful, and “we will all just have to figure it out” is an unsatisfactory course of action.

A debate over the semantic definition of censorship is far less productive than a discussion about how the state manipulates information. For analytical purposes, it is helpful to understand censorship as a spectrum instead of a binary. Censorship can be seen as a dart board: the outer edges of the board represent mild forms of information control, which grow in severity closer to the bull’s eye that is explicit censorship. Even though Trump’s censorship is rarely as overt as his decision to kick Collins out of the White House, he is constantly engaging in information control.

Trump’s information control regime is characterized by three main tactics: delegitimizing the media, restricting funding for science, and using Twitter as his own form of personal propaganda. The subtle and covert nature of the president’s tactics push the boundaries of legality without shattering them. After all, the First Amendment does not prevent Trump from undermining the media, gutting the EPA, and making baseless claims on Twitter. But such actions most certainly shape how Americans understand the world around them by presenting a steady stream of what counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway once termed “alternative facts.”

In order to understand what makes Trumpian censorship and information control so unique, we must first understand classic censorship. Although examples abound, I will use seventeenth century England and eighteenth-century France as counterfactuals. In both cases, censorship was largely explicit and overt. These comparatives are important, as they demonstrate that even though the Trump administration does not engage in the same tactics, it aims to accomplish the same result: the quelling of free speech and the distortion of the public’s understanding of truth and reality.

The concept of freedom of speech began to form in England during the seventeenth century. When King Charles I was overthrown in the English Civil War of the 1640s, John Lilburne and his political movement, comprised of the Levellers, hoped that the rise of the Cromwellian Republic would usher in a new era of free speech. Lilburne wrote in his article England’s New Chaines that the government would be best served to “hear all voices and judgments, which they can never do, but by giving freedom to the Press.” Unfortunately, such ideas did not take hold; Parliament responded to the Levellers’ requests by exacerbating repression and making seditious printing treasonous in England.

A few decades later, in the years leading up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, King James II implemented a plethora of laws intended to curtail freedom of expression. He made it illegal to criticize Catholicism by creating the Ecclesiastical Commission; authorized the postal service to open any letters that they believed could be seditious; and developed a network of spies to suppress public discussion and intimidate his opposition. Even as printing proliferated and prominent liberal thinkers like John Locke rose to power, the government continued to explicitly censor critical speech. This method of censorship would never be acceptable in the modern day, but it has not prevented Trump from seeking the same result as James II did: undermining the ability of opposing voices to influence public opinion.

Censorship in eighteenth-century France under Louis XV was also quite explicit, and enforced through law. In his exploration of the spread of information in mid eighteenth-century France, Harvard University Professor Robert Darnton points out that citizens did not receive information through newspapers because no newspaper could be published without explicit approval from the government. In fact, the government employed nearly two hundred censors, as well as many inspectors, who “repressed heresy and sedition.” The regime also posted spies in coffee shops and marketplaces to report back to the police on which civilians were speaking ill of the King. In Bourbon France, government inspectors did not merely decide which articles and books could not be published; they also protected the privileges of certain large, government-aligned newspapers, such as the Gazette de France.

The Trump administration similarly offers clear favoritism to the media sources that agree with it, but Trump’s actions go far beyond that. His campaign against the media, in which he constantly accuses liberal news outlets of producing “fake news” and being the “enemy of the people,” is unprecedented for a sitting president. If we understand censorship as a process by which elites choose the information people will receive, then Trump is censoring these media organizations incredibly effectively—according to an Axios poll, 92 percent of Republicans are convinced that the media intentionally reports fake news.

When Trump calls a media outlet “fake news” he is not merely expressing opinions about what policies he supports or opposes. He is also not engaging in an intellectual search for the truth, or some kind of rigorous effort to expose arguments that lack empirical support. The declaration that an entire news organization produces “fake news” presents his beliefs as objective, even though such declarations rarely have factual backing. America’s constitutional provision for free speech, coupled with the rapid speed at which information flows today, prevents Trump from suppressing speech in the fashion that James II and Louis XV did. Trump’s campaign against the mainstream media cannot be considered exactly the same as classical censorship, but it certainly is a concerning and effective method of modern information manipulation.

Trump’s information manipulation regime extends beyond accusing CNN of fake news. His campaign against facts and science also reeks of government censorship. Since coming into office, Trump has filled just twenty-five out of eighty-three positions designated by the National Academy of Sciences as “scientist appointees.” Further, staffing at the EPA is at its lowest level in twenty years and funding for research agencies has been slashed. If Citizens United is right that money is speech, budget cuts must be censorship! Of course, it would be a stretch to present budget cuts as censorship (as, in my opinion, it is a stretch to say money is speech) but slashing the EPA’s budget and staffers can be indirect information manipulation. Doing so undermines the ability of the EPA to carry out important research and empowers climate change skeptics to misinform the public.

But the Trump administration has done far more to exert control over the country’s perception of environmental issues. Researchers at the Columbia Law School have collected information on the Trump administration’s attempts to “silence science” since coming into office. They argue that the government has engaged in a range of actions designed to restrict scientific research and expression. Their findings suggest that the Trump administration has engaged in explicit government censorship by changing the content of websites to distort scientific information, making scientific data more difficult to access, and restricting scientists’ public communications. They also find that the administration has forced scientists to self-censor by changing the content of scientific documents in response to political pressure. These tactics offer examples of nuanced and unique information control perpetrated by government authorities.

Finally, the way Trump presents himself on Twitter is peculiar and unnerving. There is a reason that the United States lacks a state-run news network like Russia’s RT or China’s Xinhua: autocracies are commonly complemented by state-run media companies and such news networks are autocrats’ go-to method of controlling information. Yet Trump runs his personal Twitter account like a state-run news network. @RealDonaldTrump is a one-man propaganda machine in a public forum. In fact, this summer a New York City judge ruled that Trump could not legally block people on Twitter, as his account is a “designated public forum.”

This court case presents a very interesting precedent regarding the application of old laws to new technologies. But more importantly, it makes clear that Trump’s Twitter cannot be seen as nothing more than a platform for his personal musings on life and politics. If millions of Americans get their information and news from Trump's Twitter (he does have 55.6 million followers) then he has the power to mold their perceptions of global and domestic affairs with a few taps on his iPhone. The president’s use of Twitter to project unsubstantiated claims and present his preferred version of the truth is information control at its finest in the information era.

The twenty-first century has brought countless technological advancements and opportunities for the spread of free information and the elimination of censorship. Yet the relationship between information and censorship is defined by action and reaction: as information sharing techniques evolve, so too do censorship techniques. Transformations in our information ecosystem have created a new set of problems; advanced technology has brought us into a world dominated by noise and light, which make it exceedingly tough for citizens to know what to focus on and what to believe.

As information technology evolves, so too should our conceptions of how those in power seek to manipulate information and handcuff free expression. The censorship techniques of the Trump regime will continue to evolve and American society needs to develop a thoughtful response that offers structure, not one that tells us that we will “just have to figure it out!”

Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Gate. 

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons 2.0 License. The original was taken by Gage Skidmore and can be found here.

Ben Silvian


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