High Desert Sketches: The First Amendment does not cover all words or actions

Art by Valerie “CrowCrumbs” Howard

I only partially agree with Victor Hugo when he wrote in his novel Les Misérables, “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin but who calls us the darkness.” Former President Tweet spread lies daily, conspiracy theories and enough misinformation to turn the digital world dark. Both Tweet and his misguided followers are to blame for the invasion and desecration of the Capitol Building on January 6, and they both should be brought to justice for his incitement and their actions.

Many people are under the misconception that the First Amendment protects all speech. It doesn’t. One of the first things I learned at the University of Texas School of Law was that if you yell “fire” in a crowded theater and there is no fire, you are liable for any personal harm or property damage that results. Those who recently attacked the United State’s Capitol seem to be under two misapprehensions. First, that they could film themselves, usually armed, making threats against members of Congress; and second, that President Tweet should grant them a pardon for anything they said or did. Tweet’s riotous followers can believe it when I paraphrase St. Luke, “By your own words shall I judge thee.” The rioters’ words were loud and clear and leave no doubt about their threats.

Online misinformation about the presidential election plunged an astonishing 73% after Twitter and other social media networks either banned or suspended Donald Trump and key supporters, according to new data analysis. Baseless claims of election fraud dropped from 2.5 million mentions to 688,000 mentions across several social media sites in the week after Trump was banned by Twitter, according to research by the San Francisco-based analytics firm Zignal Labs. The use of hashtags linked to the January 6 Capitol attack also plunged, with “Fight for Trump,” “Hold The Line,” and “March for Trump” all falling 95%, Zignal found. The findings, covering social media comments from Jan. 9 through Jan. 15, underscore the synergistic effect of falsehoods on social media as misinformation is repeated and amplified if it’s not quickly checked.

Targeted action against particular suspected “super spreaders” of misinformation is likely to be particularly effective. A study released in October by the Election Integrity Partnership found that just 20 conservative, pro-Trump Twitter accounts — including the president’s own, @realDonaldTrump — were the original source of an astonishing one-fifth of retweets pushing misleading voting information. British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote, “A lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies.” The lies spread by Tweet and his followers resulted in the death of three police officers and the injuring of over 140 Capitol Hill Police. Tweet’s lies resulted in an insurrection against the government of the United States of America.

The internet’s social platforms have magnified misinformation to a level never seen before. The digitalization of misinformation and conspiracy theories can move with the speed of light to reinforce hate, and range far beyond our concept of rational thought. It is ironic that no one has pointed out that 110,100 Union troops died to keep the Confederate Flag out of the Capitol Building. I can only wonder what is the next symbol of hatred Trump supporters will use to achieve their spread of dissension and hatred. Maybe they’ll revamp the swastika.