The PEN Pod: Hawley ‘Silenced,’ Facebook’s Oversight Board, and the State of U.S. Funded Media with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we talked about Sen. Josh Hawley’s op-ed in the New York Post, the Facebook Oversight Board’s looming decision to uphold or overturn Donald Trump’s ban on the platform, Mark Zuckerberg’s suggestion to reduce political content in Facebook’s news feed, and the Biden-Harris administration’s performance thus far in office. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Suzanne is up until the 14:37 mark).
I want to start with Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, one of the Republicans who egged on the Capitol Hill insurrection earlier this month. He wrote this week that he’s being silenced for advocating an overthrow of democracy. Ironically, he’s making that case on the pages of the New York Post and on Fox News. Hypocrisy aside, does he have a deeper point here?
The unfortunate thing is, he really doesn’t, although I think some other people generally do. He is a sitting senator, he has a press office, he can get a forum in the New York Post—as we saw—he can be on national television talking about his views. And what he’s experiencing is just normal shunning. People reject his ideas, they think he is a threat to democracy, they believe that he is promulgating dishonesty and falsehoods and trying to take the country backward; they don’t want to be part of that. And that is the prerogative of a publisher or an editor. They’re what is obligated to give someone else a forum.
This is a book that hadn’t come out yet, hadn’t been, I don’t think, submitted even in manuscript form. We don’t love it at PEN America when books get canceled, but it didn’t seem like, in this case, it was even particularly a public outcry. Sometimes when there’s public outcry, mounts on social media can be so thunderous that editors and publishers end up overturning a decision that they otherwise would have stood by. And I think that is a worrying trend, but that doesn’t seem to be what happened here. From the looks of things, Simon & Schuster reached its own decision very quickly. A publisher needs to be able to stand by an author, believe in a book, and champion the book. And if that’s going to become impossible, it’s not the right publisher.
“We remain in what feels like a very pitched, polarized moment. We’ve lived through an era of hate speech, enabled and weaponized from the highest levels of government. And there’s a kind of protective impulse that doesn’t want to make space for ideas that are contrarian, threatening—perhaps could be seen as bullying. And so, there’s almost a cordon that has been established around an even wider range of speech, so that nothing that even comes close to that sort of hurtfulness can be spoken in some quarters. That’s something that does give me real pause.”
So now, he’s gone to a smaller publisher that focuses on conservative books, and that’s probably the right place for the message he wants to deliver. I do think we are in a moment where there is this kind of impulsive reaction to speech that can mushroom online into a real censorious sort of pounding—harsh reprisal—for even just the fleeting expression of ideas. I think the kernel of truth in what all he has said is that you’ve got to worry—in that case—not just about the person who’s doing the speaking, who maybe made a mistake, said something ignorant, is wrong-headed, and hears about it from a large audience. But there’s also everybody who’s watching that incident and who suddenly thinks twice about voicing a controversial opinion. Are you allowed to say that you weren’t inspired by the Amanda Gorman poem at the inaugural? That’s become kind of an untenable position for anybody to articulate. I’ve heard over the last week some renowned poets delicately dancing around that question. I think we should have more space for talking openly about these things and having a diversity of views expressed.
I understand why it’s become so difficult. We remain in what feels like a very pitched, polarized moment. We’ve lived through an era of hate speech, enabled and weaponized from the highest levels of government. And there’s a kind of protective impulse that doesn’t want to make space for ideas that are contrarian, threatening—perhaps could be seen as bullying. And so, there’s almost a cordon that has been established around an even wider range of speech, so that nothing that even comes close to that sort of hurtfulness can be spoken in some quarters. That’s something that does give me real pause.
It’s hard to differentiate between this sort of faux outrage and real concerns about muzzling. And I feel like you brought a lot of those concerns up in a Los Angeles Times op-ed you had this week. Particularly, it was focused on Facebook referring its decision to ban Trump on the platform to its new Oversight Board—the supposed Supreme Court of Facebook. And you write that this is really the board’s ultimate test. What’s at stake there?
Yeah, I think this may be sort of the final exit ramp on the road toward a much more intrusive form of government regulation. The platforms have argued for many years that they’re capable of policing themselves and that they don’t want to see the U.S. Congress step in and, for example, eliminate the immunity from liability for user-generated posts that the platforms enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. And so, that debate has finally ripened. The Facebook Oversight Board is an effort to demonstrate that at least one of these large companies is capable of making some of the most sensitive content decisions in a manner that is principled and divorced from the monetary profit-making and ideological considerations that would govern at Facebook headquarters. So they’ve empowered this group of 40 independent scholars, academics, lawyers, and human rights experts to come in and opine on a series of contentious issues.
“I do think we need to reflect hard on what the principal justification for [Facebook’s decision to ban Donald Trump] exactly was. Did it have to do with the exigency of the moment and the fact that it was a violent uprising? Was it appropriate because he was president? Was it appropriate because the election was over and we were no longer in a campaign situation? I think that is a significant factor in terms of the value of voters having access to his unfiltered missives when they’re rendering a decision at the ballot box.”
I think the first thing they looked at was nudity—and when nipples can and can’t be shown on Facebook. But then they quickly landed this rather quam assignment of reevaluating Facebook’s decision to ban Donald Trump. I think when it comes to that decision, I, as much as anyone else, feel an enormous sense of relief and calm knowing that Trump is off Facebook and that we’re not contending with his all caps ranting day in and day out—and the media’s obsession with that. It does feel like a healthier climate. But that sense of gratification in and of itself, I don’t think stands as a justification for silencing someone.
If you think about the power that Facebook was exercising, Trump is out of office now, but for the last two weeks of his presidency, the prime forum that he liked to use to communicate with the public was essentially open to anybody around the world virtually—except for the president of the United States and a short shortlist of a few other people who’ve gotten themselves kicked off. And so, that’s pretty remarkable. And I do think we need to reflect hard on what the principal justification for that exactly was. Did it have to do with the exigency of the moment and the fact that it was a violent uprising? Was it appropriate because he was president? Was it appropriate because the election was over and we were no longer in a campaign situation? I think that is a significant factor in terms of the value of voters having access to his unfiltered missives when they’re rendering a decision at the ballot box, and obviously the fact that falls away once the election is over with.
So in my piece, I argue that the Oversight Board essentially needs to do a very thorough and detailed job, and explain how this decision comports with international human rights law, how it would apply to other leaders—and particularly authoritarians—around the world, and help us understand that there’s actually a principled rationale for this, rather than simply the idea that we were all more than ready to just shut him off.
“It comes down to the idea that there are benefits of free speech that are well understood. . . They’re the meat of many Supreme Court decisions upholding the First Amendment in terms of free speech as a catalyst for truth, for fact-finding, for an enlightened population, for healthy democracy, for improved policy decisions, for creativity, for innovation, for all these social goods. And we see that potential online, but we also see online a whole host of harms from speech that did not exist—or did not exist in the same degree in the analog world. And so, the question we’re grappling with is, ‘Can we sustain the benefits while mitigating the harms?’”
A quick follow-up on that: We then heard this week that Facebook is considering somehow throttling what Mark Zuckerberg is calling supposed “political content.” It feels like for every moment where Facebook might start establishing some clarity around the rules and around what’s going on, we lurch back into a bit of murkiness here. How does that sort of stretch out from your op-ed this week?
Well, I think the murkiness is here to stay; this is kind of ungoverned territory. The Board just issued its first round of decisions this morning. I haven’t had a chance to analyze them yet, but we’re still very early in the process of making sense of how we want the digital arena for free speech to work. In my mind, it comes down to the idea that there are benefits of free speech that are well understood. I talk about them in Dare To Speak. They’re the meat of many Supreme Court decisions upholding the First Amendment in terms of free speech as a catalyst for truth, for fact-finding, for an enlightened population, for healthy democracy, for improved policy decisions, for creativity, for innovation, for all these social goods.
We see that potential online, but we also see online a whole host of harms from speech that did not exist—or did not exist in the same degree in the analog world. And so, the question we’re grappling with is, “Can we sustain the benefits while mitigating the harms?” I think that’s going to be a very contested question for a long time, especially because the harms are proteus; they change. What disinformation looked like in the 2020 election was radically different from 2016, and so, I do think you can’t expect this to settle anytime soon.
Finally Suzanne, I know we could do this every week, but we have our list of free speech priorities that we want the Biden-Harris administration to undertake in the first 100 days. It includes restoring the faith and credibility in some of the U.S. taxpayer funded government media outlets, like Voice of America. And we’ve actually seen the president in this new administration take some steps to reaffirm its independence, put journalists back in leadership positions. Do you think he’s following through? Is that something we can tick off our list?
I think it’s going rather well. I would say, so far, off to a good start. The U.S. Agency for Global Media, yes, there was this kind of sweeping, immediate, unapologetic housecleaning where this revanchist guard that Michael Pack—the Trump appointee—had installed in all of the key positions. All of those people are out. In many cases, their predecessors are back in the saddle, back at the job. The Biden administration—people argued, “Oh, my contract says I’m entitled to be here for another two years, and you can only remove me if I’m found guilty of a felony”—didn’t honor the niceties and the ways in which the Trump administration tried to protect and enshrine these people. I think that was exactly the right approach to get it done swiftly. And so, I’m very hopeful that those institutions can be rebuilt. The good part of the story was the Trump administration only got to the dismantling of the Agency for Global Media really in the last six months in office. And so, all the damage they were able to do was very significant. I have some hope it will be reversed.
The other thing to point out—there’s been other positive steps—obviously, the elimination of the Muslim ban, which was something that we called for in an issue that we got involved in because of the ways in which it impairs open exchange and people’s right to travel and meet one another—in whether it’s festivals, student exchanges, or other kinds of things. But I think Tony Blinken—our new secretary of state—his statement yesterday, in his first press conference, about how he intends to relate to the press, the importance of the press to democracy, and our policy-making process; there were similar messages from the White House spokesperson, Jen Psaki. So I think there’s a lot to be heartened by. There’s plenty more work to do, but the signals we’re getting are positive and strong.