One would think that a former president of the United States would be a staunch defender of the First Amendment. When it comes to Barack Obama, however, you’d think wrong. Obama spoke Wednesday at an event sponsored by The Atlantic and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy.” In the course of a long and rambling discussion with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama called for government control over the Internet in order to stem the “demand for crazy” that was spreading what he called “disinformation.” As Leftists always do, Obama claimed that this “disinformation” was threatening “our democracy,” that is, the Left’s political and cultural hegemony.
Obama first insisted, with his characteristic near-incoherence: “I am close to a First Amendment absolutist. I believe in the idea of not just free speech, but also that you deal with bad speech with good speech, that you engage, um, that, that, that, that the exceptions to that are very narrow, um, and, and, and, y’know, particularly, uh, among this cohort of folks in college, and I’ve talked to my daughters about this, um, y’know, I don’t want us to be such a society of manners that, like, we can’t, we feel like our feelings are hurt and we can’t hear something that, uh, somebody says, and, and, and we wilt. Uh, I think, uh, I want us all as citizens to be in the habit of being able to hear stuff that we disagree with and be able to answer with our words.” His First Amendment absolutism, however, only went so far.
After a good bit more rambling, Obama got around to asserting that in order to limit the spread of what he called “toxic information,” it would be “reasonable for us as a society to have a debate, and then to put in place a combination of regulatory measures and, uh, industry norms, uh, that leave intact the opportunity for these platforms to make money, but say to them that, there, there, there’s certain practices that we are not, that we don’t think are good for our society and we’re gonna discourage.” There goes the First Amendment.
This is because, he explained, “I do think that there is a demand for crazy on the internet that we have to grapple with,” and that this involves “a systematic effort to either promote false information, to suppress true information, for the purpose of political gain, financial gain, enhancing power, suppressing others, targeting those you don’t like.” Among these, “Roughly 40 percent of the country appears convinced that the current president was elected fraudulently and that the election was rigged,” and 30-35% reject the “medical miracle” of vaccines. It was important, Obama said, to reassert “the value of, y’know, expertise and, uh, science.”
Sure. But it’s remarkable that Obama would be calling for “regulatory measures” to combat “disinformation” right after the Hunter Biden laptop story, which the news organizations Obama would tout as the most reliable dismissed as disinformation for a year and a half, has now been definitively acknowledged to be true. Does Obama’s sumptuous new beachfront mansion in Hawaii not have the Internet hooked up yet? Has he really not heard about this, or does he really think that we haven’t?
The Hunter Biden laptop is the clearest indication that regulatory measures designed to protect the public from “disinformation” can prevent the public from learning genuine and important information that is inconvenient to those who have the power to enable that information to be labeled “disinformation.” If Obama is really as “close to a First Amendment absolutist” as he claims to be, he should acknowledge that there have been many other cases lately in which what was dismissed as “disinformation” turned out to be absolutely true, including the discounting and later verification of the claim that the COVID virus originated with a lab leak in Wuhan, China.
If the government had regulatory measures in place controlling “disinformation,” we might still not know about Hunter’s laptop, or the 10% he set aside for “The Big Guy” from his influence-peddling, or how the COVID virus originated, or about a host of other issues. Nowadays the guardians of acceptable opinion are flagging as “disinformation” any assertions that men are men and women are women and that one cannot turn into the other. How is that going to look once a bit of sanity returns to society?
Obama, the self-proclaimed near-absolutist on free speech should know all this and should have explained it to Goldberg. Instead, he once again revealed the authoritarian heart of the establishment Left.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of 23 books including many bestsellers, such as The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades), The Truth About Muhammad and The History of Jihad. His latest book is The Critical Qur’an. Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.