The Surprising Ideological Origins of Trump’s Communications Collectivism

by on May 28, 2020 · 0 comments

President Trump and his allies have gone to war with social media sites and digital communications platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Decrying supposed anti-conservative “bias,” Trump has even floated an Executive Order aimed at “Preventing Online Censorship,” that entails many new forms of government meddling with these private speech platforms. Section 230 is their crosshairs and First Amendment restraints are being thrown to the wind.

Various others have already documented the many legal things wrong with Trump’s call for greater government oversight of private speech platforms. I want to focus on something slightly different here: The surprising ideological origins of what Trump and his allies are proposing. Because for those of us who are old-timers and have followed communications and media policy for many decades, this moment feels like deja vu all over again, but with the strange twist that supposed “conservatives” are calling for a form of communications collectivism that used to be the exclusive province of hard-core Leftists.

To begin, the truly crazy thing about President Trump and some conservatives saying that social media should be regulated as public forums is not just that they’re abandoning free speech rights, it’s that they’re betraying property rights, too. Treating private media like a “public square” entails a taking of private property. Amazingly, Trump and his followers have taken over the old “media access movement” and given it their own spin.

Media access advocates look to transform the First Amendment into a tool for social change to advance specific political ends or ideological objectives. Media access theory dispenses with both the editorial discretion rights and private property rights of private speech platforms. Private platforms become subject to the political whims of policymakers who dictate “fair” terms of access. We can think of this as communications collectivism.

The media access movement’s regulatory toolkit includes things like the Fairness Doctrine and “neutrality” requirements, right-of-reply mandates, expansive conceptions of common carriage (using “public forum” or “town square” rhetoric), agency threats, and so on. Even without formal regulation, media access theorists hope that jawboning and political pressure can persuade private platforms to run more (or perhaps sometimes less) of the content that they want (or don’t) on media platforms.

The intellectual roots of the media access movement were planted by leftist media theorists like Jerome Barron, Owen Fiss in 1960s and 1970s, and later by Marxist communications scholar Robert McChesney. In 2005, I penned this short history of media access movement and explored its aims. I also wrote two old books with chapters on the dangers of media access theory and calls for collectivizing communications and media systems. Those books were: Media Myths (2005) and A Manifesto for Media Freedom (2008, w Brian C. Anderson). The key takeaway from those essays is that the media access movement comes down to control.

The best book ever written about dangers of media access movement was Jonathan Emord’s 1991, Freedom, Technology and the First Amendment. He perfectly summarizes their goals (and now Trump’s) as follows:

  • “In short, the access advocates have transformed the marketplace of ideas from a laissez-faire model to a state-control model.”
  • “Rather than understanding the First Amendment to be a guardian of the private sphere of communication, the access advocates interpret it to be a guarantee of a preferred mix of ideological viewpoints.
  • “It fundamentally shifts the marketplace of ideas from its private, unregulated, and interactive context to one within the compass of state control, making the marketplace ultimately responsible to government for determinations as to the choice of content expressed.”

“This arrogant, elitist, anti-property, anti-freedom ethic is what drives the media access movement and makes it so morally repugnant,” I argued in that old TLF essay. That is still just as true today, even when it’s conservatives calling for collectivization of media.

It’s astonishing, yet nonetheless true, that the ideological roots of Trump’s anti-social media campaign lie in the works of those extreme Leftists and even media Marxists. He has just given media access theory his own unique nationalistic spin and sold this snake oil to conservatives.

There certainly could come a day where his opponents on the Left just take this media access playbook up again and suggest this is exactly what’s needed for Fox News and other right-leaning media outlets. If and when that does happen, Trump and other conservatives will have no one to blame but themselves for embracing this contemptible philosophical vision simply because it suited their short-term desires while they were in power.

I hope that conservatives rethink their embrace of communications collectivism, but I fear that Trump and his allies have already convinced themselves that the ends justify the means when it comes to advancing their causes or even just “owning the libs.” But there really is a strong moralistic slant to what Trump and many of his allies want. They think they are on the right side of history and that the opponents–including most media outlets and plaforms–are evil. Trump and his allies have repeatedly referred to the press as the “enemy of the American people” and endlessly lambasted social media platforms for not going along with his desires. This reflects a core tendency of all communications collectivists: a sort of ‘you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us’ attitude.

Steve Bannon scripted all this out back in 2018. Go back and read this astonishing CNN interview for a preview of what could happen next. Here’s the rundown:

>> Bannon said Big Tech’s data should be seized and put in a “public trust.” Specifically, Bannon said, “I think you take [the data] away from the companies. All that data they have is put in a public trust. They can use it. And people can opt in and opt out. That trust is run by an independent board of directors. It just can’t be that [Big Tech is] the sole proprietors of this data…I think this is a public good.” Bannon added that Big Tech companies “have to be broken up” just like Teddy Roosevelt broke up the trusts.”

>> Bannon attacked the executives of Facebook, Twitter and Google. “These are run by sociopaths,” he said. “These people are complete narcissists. These people ought to be controlled, they ought to be regulated.” At one point during the phone call, Bannon said, “These people are evil. There is no doubt about that.”

>> Bannon said he thinks “this is going to be a massive issue” in future elections. He said he thinks it will probably take until 2020 to fully blossom as a campaign issue, explaining, “I think by the time 2020 comes along, this will be a burning issue. I think this will be one of the biggest domestic issues.”

This is now Trump’s playbook. It’s incredibly frightening because, once married up with Trump’s accusations of election fraud and other imagined conspiracies, you can sense how he’s laying the groundwork to call into question future election results by suggesting that both traditional media and modern digital media platforms are just in bed with the Democratic party and trying to rig the presidential election. I don’t really want to think about what happens if this situation escalates to that point. These are very dark days for the American Republic.

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