Donald J. Trump‘s recent attack on Google, claiming that searches conducted on it were “rigged” against him – overlooking or suppressing what he considers to be his positive accomplishments and highlighting the torrent of warranted criticism of Trump in the media that constantly appears – is just the latest in his all-out assault on the media which began before he was inaugurated as president. Like many of Trump’s pronouncements, this is based on a complete lack of understanding – in this case, of how the Google search algorithm works, which is based on relevance to the topic and search history of the searcher, not whether opinions about the topic are pro or con. Trump’s attack on Google is also part of what may be the greatest threat to democracy in the history of our republic.
The assault was unleashed at a press conference in January 2017 in New York City, a few weeks before Trump assumed the office which the Electoral College had awarded him. In response to an attempt by CNN correspondent Jim Acosta to ask a question, Trump denounced the outlet as “fake news” and therefore not entitled to ask any questions of the president-elect.
This quickly proved to be the first salvo in an attack on any news about Trump from any source that was critical of him or unwelcome as “fake news.” All of the major cable news networks other than Fox were soon treated to the same epithet, as were newspapers including The Washington Post and its owner Jeff Bezos, which led Trump to attack Amazon, most associated with Bezos in the public mind, and The New York Times. In addition, Trump labeled the latter as “failing,” even though his election campaign and his presidency, and the hunger it has created for reliably reported news, has increased its circulation, just as it has for the viewership of the progressive MSNBC.
It is little surprising but deeply disturbing that Trump would turn his sights on Google and social media since they, far more than television and newspapers, are the way that most younger people increasingly get their news. Soon after his tweet about Google, Trump expanded his attack to Twitter and Facebook, saying later that same day that “Google and Twitter and Facebook, they’re really treading on very, very troubled territory. And they have to be careful.”
President Trump: "I think that Google and Twitter and Facebook they're really treading on very very troubled territory. And they have to be careful. It's not fair to large portions of the population" pic.twitter.com/yK8Vg1iBJB
— CSPAN (@cspan) August 28, 2018
This threat, because that’s exactly what it is, has disquieting parallels. Adolf Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (at least they were honest about his title) called unfriendly news media “Lügenpresse” – the lying press – which is another way of saying fake news. Trump’s alt-right supporters have taken to using that Nazi term and tactic at rallies since 2016. Trump sprinkles “enemy of the people” into his tirades about the press, a favorite phrase of Joseph Stalin for anyone who spoke out against him in the Soviet Union.
In terms of what can be done about this, there’s not much other than getting Trump out of office. A better question is: what shouldn’t be done in response to Trump’s repeated assertions that something has to be done about what he perceives as misreporting about him in traditional and digital media, and the dissemination of that in social media and Google. Any government regulation of the news media, in any fashion, would be a blatant, ipso facto violation of the First Amendment, and its provision that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.”
In the 20th-century, critics of radio and television have been known to say that these electronic media need not be protected by the First Amendment, since our Founding Fathers who wrote that amendment in the 1790s, and the states that ratified it, could not have known about radio and television. The same is now also said about digital media.
I would argue that those arguments are focusing on the wrong thing: what characterizes a news medium and what makes it a conveyor of news is the fact that it is conveying news by whatever means, not how it does this by technological means. The Founders included the two media known in their day – the spoken and the written word. There is no reason whatsoever to assume they would not include electronic and digital means of news dissemination at hand today.
Further, we who believe in democracy must work hard to respect the First Amendment wherever it may be challenged. Censoring hate speech is dangerous because any news and speech that Trump deems hateful could be brought up for censorship under his regime. A better and safer approach is to criticize hate speech for what it is.
Trump has not yet censored any news medium. But neither did Hitler, until he and his Nazi party were democratically elected in the Weimar Republic in 1932. That republic did not have a longstanding First Amendment as a bulwark against the destruction of the free press which soon followed Hitler’s ascension to power.
But we in America do. And we must make every effort to keep it strong and unbridled to restrain this emerging Hitler in our midst.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.