As the internet spread, the regimes in Moscow and Beijing concluded that simply blocking the web would be unworkable, but they were unwilling to surrender their existing control over speech. China’s answer was flooding the zone: paying people to create content that supported the government and effectively drowned out any critics. It was soft censorship, less politically toxic and resource intensive than locking up any dissenter. Russia adopted a more bellicose stance, raising armies of trolls who would harass, defame, and humiliate Vladimir Putin’s critics, whether at home or abroad.
The tactics themselves were not always new. Russian attempts to defame opponents echoed World War I British “atrocity propaganda,” which attacked Germans with a mix of partially true and fabricated claims of deviance. Russia simply adapted that to the internet age.
It’s not hard to pick out how these tactics have spread to the United States. Trolling has been imported, both by Americans mirroring Russian tactics, and also by the very same Russian trolls—as alleged by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his indictment of the “troll farm” Internet Research Agency and some of its employees and officers. There’s plenty of flooding the zone, too, from President Trump’s attention-sucking Twitter feed to the burgeoning market in fake news. The “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory emerged from the atrocity-propaganda tradition, and required internet trolls to spread. It combined a real restaurant with fake claims to slur Hillary Clinton and her aides.
“Somehow, most of them seem ridiculous, but over time these things have had a unfortunate tendency to stick,” Wu said.
The idea that the First Amendment should, and even can, adapt to a new moment like this is jarring—it feels like an everlasting edict. But as Wu pointed out, what Americans think of as the First Amendment tradition dates only to the mid-20th century. Seven years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the government jailed a U.S. congressman under the Sedition Act because he had accused President John Adams of an “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.”
Almost exactly 100 years ago, Eugene Debs gave a speech in Canton, Ohio, criticizing American engagement in World War I and the draft. He was charged, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison, with the punishment upheld unanimously by the Supreme Court. As late as the 1930s and ’40s, people were imprisoned for advocating communism. It was only after World War II that the current free-speech doctrines came into play.
That is both frightening and heartening. On the one hand, the shallow roots of today’s traditions show how easily the recent gains could be erased. Yet it also shows the First Amendment tradition can be flexible and adaptable to new moments. If Wu’s diagnoses are intriguing, however, his prescriptions are less satisfying.