Campus News

Whose freedom of speech deserves protecting?

A panel of Carolina experts discussed how political extremists use the First Amendment to justify spreading misinformation.

Panel of (from left) moderator Nanditha Narayanamoorthy, Francesca Tripodi, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor
The "Weaponizing First Amendment Rhetoric" panel discussion featured (from left) moderator Nanditha Narayanamoorthy, Francesca Tripodi, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

What happens when the First Amendment gets co-opted by people with bad intentions? And what can be done about it? Those were some of the questions addressed by a panel of experts during one of several events held Sept. 21 for the University’s 13th First Amendment Day celebration, organized by the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy.

During the “Weaponizing First Amendment Rhetoric” discussion at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, four panelists affiliated with the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life reviewed how movements use the rhetoric of free speech and expression as a strategic tool to gain power and considered alternative ways of thinking about expression.

Here are highlights from the comments of each panelist.

Tressie McMillan Cottom

Tressie McMillan Cottom, associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science and CITAP senior faculty researcher. She is a 2020 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (“genius grant”) winner, columnist for The New York Times and author of “THICK and Other Essays.” She spoke about the internet’s role in spreading extremist views and misinformation with a lack of accountability.

Tressie McMillan Cottom

Tressie McMillan Cottom. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The privatization of places that we think of as the public square is, for me, foundational to the ability of powerful actors to perform victimhood and to not have any check on them doing so. In a democratic process, you would be able to hold a pundit, but especially a politician, to account for their truth claims, for example. Who do I approach? I don’t approach the editor of Twitter. And if a politician has now decided that that is the only legitimate space that they will engage with the public, then there is no mediating actor that represents the interests of the public who has an interest in verifying truth claims.

I do think there is something specific to the internet’s ability to (spread misinformation) because it is no longer geographically bound. We now no longer know if the people who are spreading the rhetoric on Facebook or Twitter are actually in the United States of America. Misinformation and disinformation campaigns come from across the globe. …

It has never been so cheap to do it; it has never been so easy to do it; and there’s never been so little accountability for doing it. I think in modern political history, what has happened in this moment is a hollowing out of the performative center. So … elected officials may have always been politically polarized, but they had greater incentive to pretend to caretake. … The center is where I think the public had a lot more direct sort of influence on navigating what was acceptable speech for elected officials.

Daniel Kreiss

Daniel Kreiss, Edgar Thomas Cato Distinguished Professor at Hussman and CITAP principal researcher. He most recently co-authored, with Kirsten Adams, “Power in Ideas: A Case-Based Argument for Taking Ideas Seriously in Political Communication.” He spoke about the economic motivations behind misinformation.


Daniel Kreiss

Daniel Kreiss. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Weaponization is ultimately about power. It’s about power between different social groups that are contending for political, economic (and) cultural power, social status, et cetera. Telling lies … is lucrative. You make a lot of money. We know that from the 2016 election. We know fake news sites were in part powered by economic risks, just people wanting to make money. And they were very successful at doing so. … One of the big pieces of the Facebook whistleblower (case was that) … European political parties said that they were incentivized to take more extreme positions on social media because that’s what would get engagement.

When you have a layer of commercial and technological mediation underneath the public sphere, it’s going to incentivize and create returns for actors of certain forms of very extreme performance that’s fueled by emotion and sentiment and that can also be corrosive to democratic life. … Weaponization of the First Amendment can also be the crowding out of other discourse. So we’re here celebrating First Amendment Day. But what about a Reconstruction Amendment Day? … Why is it that this particular amendment is what takes on outsize concern, both in our imagination on our campuses and in our rhetoric?

Shannon McGregor

Shannon McGregor, assistant professor at Hussman and CITAP senior faculty researcher, and an editor of “Digital Discussions: How Big Data Informs Political Communication.” She spoke about the conflation of an idealized “public square” and privately owned, for-profit social media platforms like Twitter.

Shannon McGregor

Shannon McGregor. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

(When Donald Trump got kicked off Twitter) people on the right were in that very moment saying, “You can’t take the president off social media. You’re violating his First Amendment rights. And I just had to keep saying over and over again, “No, actually, the First Amendment protects Twitter’s right to be able to say, ‘You can’t say that on our platform.’”

There’s no real mechanism for public voice in these decisions (by social media platforms). And now it’s complicated because these are private companies but there’s public actors on them and now there’s bills legislating them. … There needs to be some mechanism for public voice in these decisions. That could be transparency, just like having the public know.

I also want to push back on the idea that we had a public square and it was great and everyone could talk and everyone was heard. We have never had a public square … that was accessible by everyone and where everyone felt heard. … And I also want to say it’s not always bad to not be in public. That, in fact, it can be very beneficial for people who have historically been marginalized from our so-called public sphere to be able to have a space that is safe and beneficial for them to talk about politics and social problems.

Francesca Tripodi

Francesca Tripodi, assistant professor at SILS and CITAP senior faculty researcher. Her latest book is “The Propagandists’ Playbook: How Conservative Elites Manipulate Search and Threaten Democracy.” She spoke about how the First Amendment is being misused to justify spreading disinformation.

Francesca Tripodi

Francesca Tripodi. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Alex Jones is a conspiracy theorist who spread ample amounts of disinformation but in particular claims that the shootings that happened at Sandy Hook and other mass tragedies are not real and were staged events to try and take away our Second Amendment rights. … He comes (to court) with tape over his mouth that says, “Protect the First Amendment.” And we see, in reaction to him being held accountable, very prominent politicians who are serving in Congress claiming that this is an erosion of First Amendment rights.

(Another) thing that I think is really fascinating is how rhetoric concerning the First Amendment is used in a bizarre way to ban books … (that) are overwhelmingly books that deal with race, racial inequality, gender inequality, sexual identity. And so what’s fascinating is that what I see in my research is that political elites and pundits have an extremely sophisticated way of driving public attention toward these concepts but misrepresenting what these concepts are.

CITAP postdoctoral research fellow Nanditha Narayanamoorthy moderated the discussion.

View the recording of the panel discussion.