BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This week, another name was added to the toll of black men and women killed by the police.
NEWS REPORT The victim's been named as George Floyd. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE He was 46 years old, grew up in Houston, but moved to Minnesota in search of a better life. He worked security at a restaurant, ‘til coronavirus shut it down. On Monday, he was accused of using a counterfeit 20 in a grocery store.
NEWS REPORT Videos emerged showing a police officer kneeling on his neck in a street for some considerable time. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Nearly eight minutes.
GEORGE FLOYD My stomach hurts, my neck hurts, everything hurt. I can't breathe. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE On Tuesday, the protests started.
NEWS REPORT At this hour, fires are still burning on the south side of Minneapolis. After protesters took to the streets. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE On Wednesday, riots.
NEWS REPORT Overnight, Minneapolis on fire. Protesters leaving an auto parts store in flames. Others seen looting a local Target. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And Thursday...
NEWS REPORT Chaotic protests continuing throughout the night. This is video of a Minneapolis police station that was set on fire a few hours ago. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT The president tweeted just a short time ago, and I want to read the whole thing. He says, "I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis. A total lack of leadership. Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right...These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Any difficulty and we will assume control" And then again, an extraordinary line, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thursday night. Also saw protests in Phoenix, Denver, Memphis, Columbus, New York City. And in Louisville, peaceful protests demanding justice for the shooting death of Breonna Taylor during a police raid in March, turned violent.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Martin Luther King in April 1967, a year before his assassination.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. And in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. So, on a real sense, our nation's summers of riots are caused by our nation's winters of delay. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Six summers ago, months of unrest followed the police shooting of Michael Brown launching the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, as video evidence of abuse of power piles up amid a pandemic that has killed black people at a strikingly disproportionate rate, the sense that black lives still don't matter is hard to shake.
Take the murder in February of another black man also caught on video.
NEWS REPORT Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man who in February, almost to the day it happened to Trayvon Martin eight years ago, was chased down by white men in pickup trucks and shot and killed on a residential street in Georgia. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE A reminder of why incidents like this other one on Monday, in New York City's Central Park, are so harrowing. A white woman, named Amy Cooper had her dog off leash in a part of the park where leashes are required. A black man, Christian Cooper, an ardent birdwatcher, asked her to leash, said dog. From there, things escalated.
CHRISTIAN COOPER Please don't come close to me.
AMY COOPER Sir, I'm asking you to stop recording me.
CHRISTIAN COOPER Please don't come close to me.
AMY COOPER Please take your phone off
CHRISTIAN COOPER Please don't come close to me.
AMY COOPER Then I'm taking pictures and calling the cops.
CHRISTIAN COOPER Please, please call the cops. Please call the cops.
AMY COOPER I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life.
CHRISTIAN COOPER Please tell them whatever you like.
AMY COOPER There is an African American man. I am in Central Park, he is recording me, threatening myself and my dog. I'm sorry I can't hear you either. I'm being threatened by a man into the bramble. Please send the cops immediately. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Cooper lost her job, lost her dog and was dubbed a "Karen". We turned to a 2018 Saturday Night Live for guidance.
GUEST Let's go to White People for 400.
HOST Your friend Karen, brings her potato salad to your cookout. Uh oh, T'Challa.
GUEST: This woman Karen, she is Caucasian, eh?
GUEST And she has her own recipe for potato salad?
HOST Yeah, yeah.
GUEST Although I have never had potato salad.
HOST Of course.
GUEST I sense that this white woman does not season her food.
HOST That's right.
GUEST And if she does, it is only with a tiny bit of salt.
HOST That's exactly right.
GUEST And no paprika.
HOST No paprika, no.
GUEST And she would probably add something unnecessary - like raisins.
HOST I know, right?
GUEST Something tells me that I should say it.
HOST Say it
GUEST Oh, hell no Karen. Keep your bland ass potato salad to yourself
BROOKE GLADSTONE In recent years, Karen is transformed. No longer just an entitled white lady, but one who wants to speak to your manager. Another SNL instructional:
NARRATOR While working in his lab located above a Tory Burch, Dr. Bruce Banner was hit with gamma radiation in a failed experiment, causing him to transform into an emboldened white lady whenever he is provoked. He is the Impossible Hulk.
FEMALE CLERK: I told you, sir, the store policy is...
KAREN Yeah, you're being aggressive. I'm calling the police.
MALE CLERK For what?
OPERATOR 911, what is your emergency?
KAREN Yes, hello, yes. I'd like to report an act of aggression.
MALE CLERK We are literally just standing here.
KAREN Now they're crowding me, I cannot breathe.
FEMALE CLERK Sir, just take your money back. It's fine.
KAREN No! Do not rush me. Do not try to silence me.
MALE CLERK Oh man, this dude is impossible. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Apryl Williams is a professor of communications and media at the University of Michigan. And she says the Karen meme resurged with a vengeance last month.
APRYL WILLIAMS A woman named Karen was denying that COVID-19, was real, became ill, and unfortunately, she passed away. And one of the things that I'm seeing is people saying, "look, this is peak Karen behavior."
The whole reason why this person had posted originally and was protesting was because she believe that states should reopen, the economy is failing. And she wanted to be able to go to the store and get her nails done and all those types of things.
I think this resurgence in conversations about what a Karen is, is because of the conversations on COVID-19. But I do want to actually go back and talk about the origins of Karen's and Becky's and how those all fit together. I would say in the black community, a Becky or a Karen or a Susan or a Patty even is a cultural signifier. And a signifier is really just when a community or a subcommunity is using particular patterns of language coded so that members of that community can quickly pick up on this referential piece, right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is there a difference between a Karen and a Susan?
APRYL WILLIAMS There is. But Karen, Becky, Susan are all the same type - at different ages and also different economic and social classes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Could you decode a little bit? What's the difference between a Karen and a Kylie, say?
APRYL WILLIAMS Yeah, so Kylie is typically for folks who are younger. Fifteen to twenty-years-old Kylie, for whatever reason, is just the name that we've settled on. Becky, is anywhere from twenty years old to mid-thirties range. People probably say that this kind of person is quote unquote basic, meaning peak whiteness, right. Things like pumpkin spice lattes we would associate with a Becky.
Once you've reached the Becky's stage, now you're a Karen. Mid-thirties to mid-forties. You're used to having the entitlement now, and you're comfortable enough to say, you know what, I want to talk to your manager. Karen is classically associated with this idea of calling the manager. So, this Karen, the manager that she's calling, is the police, but it can be any situation in which a white woman is not satisfied and is now going to call the manager.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this Karen, Amy Cooper, experienced some real fallout. A lost job, a lost dog, public shaming. Do these memes seek a consequence? Or are they simply a form of expression?
APRYL WILLIAMS The memes themselves are a form of expression. I also frame them as an act of resistance against this casual white supremacy. Because ultimately, when they call the police on black people, that's what they're doing. They're upholding a white supremacist system. When these memes circulate, they're calling attention to the fact that this white supremacy is the norm, right.
The memes themselves don't necessarily say like, oh, we should fire this person. But the text that accompanies the meme, they'll often say "this person deserves to be fired."
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, Karen is one in a long line of sobriquets, shall we say, given to white women across the decades. And you've been doing deep research into the BBQ Becky phenomenon, which started with a woman named Jennifer Schulte.
APRYL WILLIAMS Yes, that's right. This occurred on April 28, 2018. I've been following and collecting data about tweets related to Jennifer Schulte since then. And also another white woman, Alison Ettel.
On June 23, 2018, Alison Ettel, who was dubbed Permit Patty, called the police on an eight-year-old girl who was selling bottled water outside of her apartment building.
MOTHER She calling police on a eight-year-old little girl. You could hide all you want, the whole world go see you, boo.
ALISON ETTEL Yeah, and um illegally selling water without a permit. Yeah.
MOTHER On my property.
ALISON ETTEL It's not your property. [END CLIP]
APRYL WILLIAMS Yeah, so these are the two cases that really sort of sparked this living while black moment. And as these two cases were occurring pretty closely together, people are starting to recognize a pattern and they're even starting to use the same kinds of framing when they're creating the memes. We had Barbecue Becky, and then we had Permit Patty and now we have Central Park Karen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've described something else these incidents have in common. Which is these women are frequently likely to underplay the role of race in their actions. You referred to something called the epistemology of ignorance.
APRYL WILLIAMS Yes, that's right. So the whole entire apparatus of whiteness is dedicated to maintaining this myth that racism doesn't exist, that we're all equal and life is much better when people don't talk about race. Right. And so these white women perform this ignorance about race when they make these calls into the police.
And it's really interesting, because actually Central Park Karen explicitly says, you're an African American and I'm gonna call the police and tell them that, right. It's a little bit different because in previous cases, we saw people were wanting to shy away from the fact that they were engaging in a racially charged incident, whereas this Karen is relying on this heated racialized narrative to cause panic in this man.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So give me a sense of how this epistemology of ignorance plays out, though.
APRYL WILLIAMS So Barbecue Becky called 911 several times over the course of two hours about this family who was grilling with charcoal grills. And apparently charcoal grilling wasn't allowed in that part of the park. Allegedly. No one's really sure, I still have not gained clarity because you are allowed to grill there. The question is just whether or not you're allowed to use charcoal.
So, she's calling and she's saying, I don't want our children to be burned by hot coals and to waste taxpayer money. I'm not making that up.
BECKY I'd like this dealt with immediately. So that coals don't burn more children, and we have to pay more taxes.
OPERATOR I need a description, and what race are they?
BECKY Um, African American.
OPERATOR And how old approximately?
BECKY I'd say about forty. Or late thirties.
OPERATOR What color clothing is he wearing?
BECKY He is wearing dark black pants that are ripped and a black sweatshirt. [END CLIP]
APRYL WILLIAMS But when the 911 responder is asking her about her race, the 911 prompter actually says the police won't be able to find you and help you if they don't know who they're looking for.
OPERATOR What race are you and how old are you?
BECKY My race doesn't matter.
OPERATOR Then how are they going to find you? They're looking for you right now. You won't even tell me.
BECKY Where are they? I am at Cleveland Cascade, I am a white person...
APRYL WILLIAMS Performing this ethos of race not mattering. She's white, and as a white woman, she should not have to explain. And also, I think maybe she doesn't want to be identified as a white woman. They're recording me right. Look, sort of pulling away from wanting to tell them that she is a white woman herself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE At this point, you've compiled about fifty-six thousand tweets, about 15 cases of mostly white women calling the police on black people from what you call - living while black.
APRYL WILLIAMS So, I've actually collected eighty-nine thousand tweets in total.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow.
APRYL WILLIAMS Yeah. About all of these incidences. And I'm going to just list them for you. And listeners are free to go and check them out on Twitter. So, in addition to Barbecue Becky, and Permit Patty, I've also collected data on Bus Berator Brenda, Lawnmower Lucy, Pool Patrol Paula. Racist Roslyn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That was pretty explicit.
APRYL WILLIAMS Burrito Bill, Jogger Joe, Walmart Mary, Airline Amy, Road Raging Randy, Loud Music Maggie and Candy Bar Cora.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So there were three guys in there assuming the Road Rage Randy was a guy, but maybe not
APRYL WILLIAMS Yes, Road Raging Randy is a guy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Which one drove you the most crazy?
APRYL WILLIAMS The one that I love to hate the most is Barbecue Becky. Just because the fact that she called into 911 multiple times and stuck around for two hours harassing these people. When a white woman in the past made an accusation about a black man, it resulted in his death. Here, maybe it's a little bit harder for people of white backgrounds to see. But for the black community, we can see those dots connected very easily in the way that if this black man who was birdwatching in Central Park, if the police had come out because of Central Park Karen, there may have been an altercation - who knows? This black man could very well have ended up dead. And that's the scary part.
That's how we see this framing. We see this racism continuing from our ideas of white women have historically had the power to say to black men in particular, you were doing something that threatens me, even if that thing that's threatening is just existing in a black body, just walking down the street, just birdwatching. But because these white people feel that these black individuals have stepped out of a particular social order or have inconvenienced them in some way, they feel that they have the authority to regulate how black bodies act and are treated in public society in the US.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've said that these memes flip the discourse.
APRYL WILLIAMS Yeah, the memes serve as a stand in for a traditional black news reporting outlets that we had in the past, but we've now sort of lost. And they also served to call attention to the broader, popular culture community and the broader news media, right. If people weren't making memes about these types of events and these incidences, then I'm not sure that they would have the same level of notoriety or the same level of popularity and press as they do right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. In some states, they're passing Living While Black laws. That's a phrase that doesn't emerge from a congressional committee. It comes from somewhere else. And you've got Representative Bynum in Oregon. She said that memes spurred her desire to write legislation like that.
APRYL WILLIAMS Yeah, someone called the police on her while she was out campaigning. And so her own personal experience, also coupled with the abundance of memes, spurred her on to write legislation that would make it illegal to call the police on black people for doing things that are not illegal. And so we're seeing that in Oregon, in Grand Rapids, Michigan - they are working on similar legislation that would make it illegal to call the police on people for living while black.
And I do believe the memes play a part of a greater social movement as they're situated on Twitter within the larger discourse, talking about what it means to live while black, talking about what it means to be policed for doing everyday activities. One of the cool things about the memes is that they help white people to laugh at themselves and they also help them to understand that what's happening in the meme is wrong, right, and so I don't want to be the next Barbecue Becky. And so the memes sort of helped to have those cultural conversations that are difficult to have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How does this turn towards looking at the racist actions of certain white women relate to this whole issue of white fragility, this notion that if you put me on the spot or suggest that I'm racist, I might cry?
APRYL WILLIAMS That's a great question. I think it's really interesting that in most of these situations, though, white women who are calling the police are comfortable before they realize they're being recorded. Once they sort of recognize that they're being recorded, and according to Robin D'Angelo, who we attribute that idea of white fragility to, when there's a calling of account of that racism, tears are often used to draw attention away from the harm that they're causing and turn the attention back on them as the innocent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE About these memes, is the point here that they're forcing people to recognize that race is at the heart of each of these incidents? Not a marginal issue. It is the only real issue.
APRYL WILLIAMS It is the primary motivating factor for placing that call to the police. I'm not sure that if these incidences were happening to white people that they would feel the need to call the police at all. If they were, we would hear about it, as we have recently with COVID, where white people are being kicked out of stores because they refuse to wear a mask. So, if it were the case that white people were calling the police randomly on other white people, I think we would hear about it. The fact that these incidences this keep happening to black people, black men in particular, says that we are still grappling with the same type of racism that we were dealing with under Jim Crow era segregation. And that's central to these memes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Apryl, thank you so much.
APRYL WILLIAMS You're welcome. Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Apryl Williams is a professor of communications and media at the University of Michigan and a research fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, how to reckon with white power of the double X variety.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Apryl Williams described the memes that have emerged from encounters between some white women and men, quote, "living while black." So how do we get to a better place? Jessie Daniels is a sociology professor at Hunter College in the CUNY Graduate Center and author of the upcoming book Undoing White Womanhood.
JESSIE DANIELS There's real deadly power in a white woman calling 911 or pointing her finger at a person of color saying he's the one that did it. And that really connects to a much longer history in the United States. I mean, we could go all the way back to slavery, but I think most people have a more recent memory of someone like Carolyn Bryant, who pointed a finger at Emmett Till and got him quite literally killed, brutally so, and then many decades later recanted, said it didn't happen. And that specific kind of power, I think, really hasn't been examined thoroughly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So let's talk about the long-term impact of that power. You noted that the 911 emergency call system we have is in many ways an outgrowth of the iconic murder of a woman, Kitty Genovese, in Queens, New York.
JESSIE DANIELS Yeah, this is an interesting and terrible story. Kitty Genovese, as many people know, was raped and murdered, trying to get home from her job tending bar one night and was attacked just outside of her apartment. The reporting, at the time, was that dozens of people heard her cries for help and didn't call anyone. We know later that that's not what actually happened, but that story kind of lived on about her murder, and what many people begin to clamor for after that was an easy way to call the police. Her surviving brother in a documentary just a couple of years ago said that he and the family look on the 911 system as one of the silver linings of her brutal murder.
But what's interesting to me is that it really connects to this history of white women and this mythology of the brutal black man. That is a kind of central story in the American cultural landscape, I mean, Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote in The Red Record, 1895 that the big lie of lynching was that white women were being attacked by black men. And that story is deeply encoded in the American culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How in our daily lives can we disrupt this idea?
JESSIE DANIELS That's a great question. I think, you know, one of the ways that we can disrupt this in our daily lives is by treating other people with respect and following the rules that everybody else has to follow. There was another meme that appeared on the Internet recently. It's a woman who's, I don't know, in her fifties or sixties. She's driving a pickup truck and a police officer stops her to give her a ticket, it's like an $80 ticket, and she keeps arguing with him that she doesn't deserve it, and he doesn't understand that he doesn't deserve it. She rolls up her window and drives away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Oklahoma woman who is resisting arrest after she was pulled over for a broken taillight and refused the ticket and yelled at the officer was Debra Hamil, sixty-five years old. "Yeah, I tried to kick you because I'm a country girl," she told the officer, "I don't like being thrown on the floor."
OFFICER You don't wanna sign it.
DEBORAH HAMMIL No, because I don't think that I deserve to pay $80 for something that is fixable and I can fix it. That's all you want to do.
OFFICER Go ahead, step out of the car.
DEBRA HAMIL Why?
OFFICER Because you're under arrest. Step out.
DEBRA HAMIL No, I'm not.
OFFICER Step out of the vehicle.
DEBRA HAMIL No, I'm not.
OFFICER Step out.
DEBRA HAMIL No. [END CLIP]
JESSIE DANIELS It ends up with her on the ground, out of her truck under arrest. There is something about that so embodies this meme of white women who don't think that the rules apply to them. So, I mean, I think one of the ways that we can disrupt the specialness that's been attached to white womanhood in our daily lives is to recognize that we're not that special, that we have to follow the rules like everybody else. Amusing as that video is watch, if you flip the script and you imagine her as a black woman or a latinx woman, and certainly if she were a black man, you know, they might have ended up dead at the end of that encounter, and that, that's not funny at all, and that's part of why this is so serious to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have a book coming out soon called Undoing White Womanhood. What were you driven to examine in that book?
JESSIE DANIELS Well, I've really been thinking about this for decades now. Most of our research has been on white supremacists, white nationalists, that sort of thing, and when I'm spending a lot of time at Stormfront, for example, a white supremacist portal. For a long time, it was the largest one, the only one online. And, you know, the Southern Poverty Law Center has linked at least 100 murders from people who had some association to Stormfront. It's a vile place on the Internet. And a place that I wandered into on that portal was a whole discussion board called the Ladies Only Forum, and it was populated by white women and they were talking about equal pay for equal work, abortion rights, you know, how silly and foolish the men and their lives are. It sounded so ordinary and so feminist. And that really threw me. I mean, I was like, what's going on here? And part of what I concluded is that feminism, if it doesn't have a central understanding of race and racism, is completely compatible with white supremacy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you want readers to take away from your book?
JESSIE DANIELS Well, what I really want readers to understand is that we white women have specific cultural history in this country, and we have a real responsibility to not do more harm as white women. Not to continue to do harm. We've got to do better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
JESSIE DANIELS It was great talking to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jessie Daniels is a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center and a sociology professor at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, the president's newest nemesis is also his best friend, Twitter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. "When the looting starts," tweeted the president of the United States Friday morning, "the shooting starts."
There's no need to unpack all of the animus behind his threat to bring the hammer down in the Twin Cities. The violent couplet speaks for itself, but the tweet was posted in a new reality.
About three hours later, the Twitter comms account retweeted Trump's tweet. With this note: "we have placed a public interest notice on this tweet from @realDonaldTrump."
NEWS REPORT Twitter flagged that, as you said, as a violation of its rules about glorifying violence. That means users can't see that shooting line unless they specifically click on it. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD This was the culmination of a tumultuous week when the man who puts the bully in bully pulpit was finally, if incrementally, chastened by the very platform on which he most relies.
NEWS REPORT The president had claimed that postal ballots would lead to voter fraud in this year's election.
NEWS REPORT Well, Twitter fact-check President Trump today for the first time.
NEWS REPORT With a link to CNN and Washington Post fact-checkers who debunked the president's claim as false.
NEWS REPORT Claims the company is stifling his free speech. He says he will, quote, "not allow it to happen." [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Twitter has never held Donald Trump to the same standards of truth and civility it demands of ordinary users. Until now, it reacted not at all to his ad hominem attacks, accusations of treason, incitements to violence, even his recently resurrected charge that former congressman and current TV nemesis, NBC host Joe Scarborough, was implicated in the 2001 murder.
NEWS REPORT A woman who worked for Joe Scarborough, not directly, she worked in a field office that had a heart arrhythmia. She fell and hit her head and died. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD New York Times contributor Kara Swisher wrote about the bizarre melodrama unfolding before our eyes.
KARA SWISHER Since then, there's been a really weird conspiracy theory around her death and that she was involved with then Congressman Scarborough and that he killed her. He was hundreds of miles away at the time. The whole thing has been disproven so many times, but it still endured.
BOB GARFIELD For the widower of Lori Klausutis, it has been a nightmare upon a nightmare. Timothy Klausutis has begged Twitter to delete Trump's tweets, and Joe Scarborough has begged Trump to cease and desist the grotesque behavior. Trump, for his part, claims that Twitter deleting tweets or otherwise intervening would violate his First Amendment right to free speech. Would you please explain why that misunderstands the Constitution?
KARA SWISHER It's not what it says. The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. And it does not say that Twitter can make no law, it does not say Facebook can make no law. He's characterizing them as public squares, which they are not, even if they seem like it.
And he's saying that he can say anything he wants on them because of that. And it's just not true. They've just allowed him to do so. And that's very different from having the right to do so.
BOB GARFIELD Certainly, Twitter users who are not U.S. presidents must follow the rules. Here are a couple of users complaining on YouTube about having their accounts suspended.
YOUTUBER Basically, my Twitter was banned because I responded saying the N-word with the A. I didn't know you can get banned for that. [END CLIP]
YOUTUBER I got suspended for saying, please start using the right “you're” or I'm going to kill you. And I'm guessing they suspended me for the "kill you" part, as if I'm going to kill someone over grammar. That's insane. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD In fact, for more than four years, Twitter has elected to give Trump and other world leaders unfettered access to their followers on the grounds of newsworthiness. The same justifications invoked by mainstream media for disseminating and amplifying every Trump peroxisome of id since the 2016 campaign. At Twitter's annual shareholder meeting, on Wednesday, interim CEO Jack Dorsey found himself with both a languishing stock price and investors agitating about the impunity afforded Trump. [CORRECTION: Dorsey is not in an "interim" position at Twitter.] Dorsey responded with his usual vagueness about cleansing bad information with good information.
DORSEY First and foremost, I believe that the truth always emerges. The truth always comes out. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD I asked Kara Swisher if that's just wishful thinking.
When the liars and propagandists have 80 million followers. That does give untruth an edge, does it not?
KARA SWISHER It certainly does. The problem is you can't check everything, because there can be lies all over the place, right? Because this is their platforms designed for lying - 100 %. They're designed for a lot of things, but liars do well on these platforms.
And so you're not going to police everything, so you have to make examples of people. And when it's so egregious and actually has a potential to suppress voting or to cause health damage, it's your duty as a company to point it out.
BOB GARFIELD Yet by that moment, Twitter's platitudes had already transformed into some degree of action. Modest, but as it turns out, momentous. On Tuesday, Twitter had appended a caution flag to two Trump tweets alleging widespread fraud in mail-in voting. The allegation, a frequent Trump refrain, wasn't true. So Twitter added a fact check link.
KARA SWISHER Yeah, it's the most minor thing you could do. They inform you that this tweet was potentially misleading and then they link to stories which in this case debunked everything Trump was saying.
BOB GARFIELD Minor? Not to Trump and his allies who immediately started retaliating. This was presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway on Fox, siccing the president's followers on a Twitter employee who had years ago used the platform to ridicule the president.
KELLYANNE CONWAY The name of somebody at Twitter. He's the head of integrity, and his name is [REDACTED]. Somebody in San Francisco go wake him up, and tell him he's about to get more followers. [END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD She said he was about to get more followers, but what she meant was more harassment. Thursday afternoon, Trump did the same on Twitter, because they claim the man's views were a smoking gun of institutional bias by Twitter. The White House, in a panic, then flailed for ways to harm Twitter's business by undercutting a piece of federal law called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law that holds digital platforms harmless for the mischief of their users. Unlike publishers who can be sued over the content they print, Twitter, Facebook and so on are deemed common carriers without the protection of Section 230, they'd have to take on the expensive lawyers and moderation costs and delete much of the free content they sell ads against. [**CORRECTION: "Common carriers" are not relevant to the subject at hand and we regret the errors. The sentence should have read: "Publishers, like the New York Times or Star magazine, can be sued over the content they print, but online platforms from Reddit to Pinterest to Wikipedia have immunity from that through Section 230. Without that protection, Twitter, Facebook and so on would have to either delete much of their content for fear of being sued, or simply stop policing it altogether." For more information on Section 230 can be found in this handy explainer from Verge.] This is Republican Congressman Matt Gates, one of Trump's fiercest allies.
GATES I say no special carve out in our law for big tech. I am currently working with House Judiciary members to revise Section 230 so that we do not have this type of election interference from companies like Twitter going forward. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD For years, Trump has used Twitter and other venues to charge Democrats with electoral fraud. He claims, with zero evidence, that the fraud cost him the popular vote majority in 2016 and is being ramped up to rig the vote again in November.
TRUMP They have to be very careful because you know the things with bundling and all of the things that are happening with votes by mail, with thousands of votes are gathered. And I'm not going to say which party does it, but thousands of votes are gathered and they come in and they're dumped in a location. And then all of a sudden you lose elections that you think you're going to win. I won't stand for it. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Nope. Voter fraud in general has been found by authorities of red states and blue to be negligible. And there is bipartisan support for mail-in ballots as a secure way to vote. But Trump continues to foment doubt about a fair election, and now he claims the fact check flag is illegal censorship. On Thursday, he signed an executive order seeking to limit Twitter's access to Section 230 protection. Swisher says Trump is just lashing out and he knows it.
KARA SWISHER Trump's claims about mail-in ballots are incorrect. So take them to court about those flags, knock yourself out. But guess what? You're going to lose and the judge would throw it immediately out. And the issue is the tech needs to be regulated. It needs to be regulated smartly. And this is not that. This will only solidify the power of tech because they're going to take a stupid shot at them and lose.
BOB GARFIELD Perhaps Twitter, amid the White House's impotent thrashing, was then emboldened to hide the president's looting and shooting tweet. Dorsey finally permitted what Trump critics have been demanding for years. But is this as far as they dare go? I asked Swisher:
In your recent op-ed, you mused over the notion of Twitter giving Trump the Alex Jones treatment and just de-platforming him altogether.
KARA SWISHER The way in which you get taken off a platform as you violate their rules and then you're warned about it several times; that's what happened to Alex Jones. He has not been warned yet. Now, he could be warned and he keeps doing it and they take him off, but they very loathe to remove him because he's newsworthy. One of the things I think will happen if you do that, it becomes his liberty cry for his base. And it doesn't really accomplish what you need to do, which is to make sure that the things that he is tweeting do not break the rules of Twitter or Facebook or whatever platform he's on.
We all have to think as a society, our legislators, our media, our tech companies have to get together and figure out what's the best way to do this. These can be tools, all these digital devices, they don't have to be weapons and they can bring people together. And you've seen it during this coronavirus, so much wonderful stuff on Twitter, some of the comedy, things like that. It doesn't have to degenerate into this and it doesn't have to be always focused on Donald Trump. He just happens to be the most perfect example of when everything goes wrong with these inventions.
BOB GARFIELD Maybe you've wondered why Joe Scarborough doesn't just sue the pants off of his accuser for libel. As a public figure, Scarborough would have to demonstrate actual malice, a defamatory statement made, quote, "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." But come on, murder of a woman who wasn't murdered, and Scarborough, 900 miles away. Open and shut case, right? Well, probably, if such a suit could be litigated. But it's an almost impossible legal hill to climb.
Bradley Moss, is a partner at the law firm of Mark S. Zaid. In 2008, he represented Marines who tried unsuccessfully to sue the late Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, only to be stymied by a federal law called the Westfall Act. Back in 2017, the last time Trump trotted out the Scarborough nonsense, Moss revisited Westfall, passed by Congress several decades ago, which gives federal employees immunity from claims of loss or harm that come from the course of their official duties.
BRADLEY MOSS And the way the courts have construed this in litigation that's been brought over the years, is that when it comes to something like defamation or libel, it doesn't matter what the actual substantive content, the verbiage was that was used. All that matters is the context in which it was made. And so in this regard, with respect to the president's tweets and Joe Scarborough, the way, the course of view, it is within his scope of his responsibilities to speak to the public and speak to the press about matters of what he would view as public interest. It doesn't matter what he says, what the particular content is, all that matters is that his action was within the scope of his official responsibilities and therefore he personally cannot be sued no matter what he says.
BOB GARFIELD But you can prevail upon the attorney general, could you not, to in some cases theoretically to stipulate that a given tweet is personal and does not have anything to do with his responsibilities as an elected official? Is that a path that someone could take?
BRADLEY MOSS They could take it. In this context, though, it would be almost certain to fail. If so, Joe Scarborough, for example, were to sue the president for his tweets, what would happen is that the Attorney General would issue what's called a Westfall certification, in which he would state that I have concluded that the president's actions were within the scope of his official responsibilities. And he's going to do that based on past practice, pass case law, that the president, speaking to the press, speaking to the public, is part of his official responsibility, no matter what the content, and that therefore, as a result, the U.S. government would move to intervene and substitute itself for the president and then replace Donald Trump as the defendant with the U.S. government as the defendant.
BOB GARFIELD And what happens when you sue the U.S. government?
BRADLEY MOSS The problem you run into is the U.S. government itself has never made itself subject to libel lawsuits in this context for anything its people do within the scope of their responsibilities. The lawsuit would then be dismissed under the existing statutory laws like the Westfall Act and the lawsuit dies.
BOB GARFIELD There is an argument that says, well, this is Trump's personal Twitter account, so he's personally liable.
BRADLEY MOSS Sure. So that was addressed very early on in his presidency as we never had a president who had used the personal Twitter account like this while being president. And so the government had to figure out how to deal with Trump in his personal tweeting. Some of the responses from the government came out and some of my litigation under Freedom Information Act when we were trying to address how to respond, how to consider the context of disclosures Donald Trump was making from his personal account as opposed to the White House account. And it was the government's statements in documents to the court and in hearings that they treat any statement, anything uttered by Donald Trump on his personal account as an official statement from the Office of the President.
BOB GARFIELD Now, many others have used Twitter to pass along this Scarborough smear. Could Scarborough, if he wished, get anywhere trying to make an example of them to establish guardrails on social media fulminations?
BRADLEY MOSS You know, let's say, for example, that one of the president's kids who are not in government service, you know, say Eric Trump or Donald Trump Jr. or Tiffany Trump, let's say they were to craft their own tweets and repeat basically verbatim some of what the president has said, that would put them at risk. But it would have to be an independent, separate action. It couldn't just be them, for example, retweeting what the president had stated. It would have to be the Eric Trump would separately say something, then Joe Scarborough would have some manner of legal resource against Eric Trump.
BOB GARFIELD And what about Joe Schmo with six followers?
BRADLEY MOSS He certainly could if he were to so choose. But it's not like if he were to file that lawsuit and win that lawsuit against, you know, Random Troll A, that he could then file quickie lawsuits against everybody else. He would have to run each individual lawsuit on its own. There'd be issues of discovery, there'd be issues of lengthy pleadings, and it takes years each time. And it just wouldn't be worth it for him. That's why, by and large, most public figures don't regularly file defamation or libel lawsuits because it's usually not worth their while. They only do it in very select circumstances or where it's so egregious they decide they can't let it slide.
BOB GARFIELD We've gone through various unavailing legal strategies for dealing with toxic presidential tweeting. If you're a citizen looking elsewhere in the law for protection, are you pretty much out of luck?
BRADLEY MOSS The reason for this was because given how powerful the presidency is supposed to be, given that he is the commander-in-chief, the ultimate authority on going to war, on launching a nuclear missile and doing so many things, the Constitution didn't want that person to be burdened with unceasing lawsuits over every little thing. They wanted the public, through the election process or the separate independent political branch, Congress, through its impeachment mechanism to be the only ones who could remove him or eventually her from office or otherwise restrict what they do. Beyond that, this person who sits in that office, who was elected, who, you know, got the necessary votes from Electoral College under the Constitution, is the person who decides how they're going to behave in that context, no matter how unethical or immoral we may view it.
BOB GARFIELD So out of luck.
BRADLEY MOSS Mhm.
BOB GARFIELD Brad, thank you so much.
BRADLEY MOSS Not a problem, anytime.
BOB GARFIELD Bradley Moss is a partner at the law firm Mark S. Zaid. He wrote: "Could Joe Scarborough Sue President Trump for Libel" in Politico in 2017
Trump's Friday tweet that, in Twitter's words, glorified violence was prompted by rioting in Minneapolis that culminated in the burning of a police station. So, let's talk about arson. Let's for a moment, suppose an incendiary politician were to set fire to the truth.
REPORTER The second question was about your tweets, about the woman who died here suggesting that Joe Scarborough was responsible.
TRUMP Yeah, a lot of people suggest that. And hopefully someday people are going to find out. Certainly a very suspicious situation, very sad, very sad and very suspicious. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Of course, the ladder trucks, and pumpers of journalism would come racing to extinguish the blaze.
NEWS REPORT The woman's death was ruled an accident and police never suspected foul play. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD What has just taken place is a basic exercise in public safety. The first responders had no bias against combustion. What Trump and his enablers in Congress and the media have done for years is set fires, and when the Inspectors General and the House of Representatives and the intelligence community and the special counsel and, especially, the press seek accountability from the firebugs, the arsonists claim to be not perps, but victims, victims of a vast conspiracy built on partisan bias.
NEWS REPORT Clearly, the mainstream media has an agenda here and their agenda is to hurt the president of the United States. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT More people are going to start to just disappear from the Internet. Yeah. Because they express opinions that Silicon Valley might not like. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT They say, oh, there's no censorship in social media. That's all made up. That's all fake. You and I know the truth is that the social media giants would love to shut us down. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD They also exploit the bonus element of distraction. Each new fire takes the public's mind off of the last one, such as the denialism that has contributed to 100,000 COVID dead. Life and death crises become hapless casualties of the news cycle. And beyond that, from the ashes, rise still more dangerous lives. Such as the first one Twitter flag to make the week's conflict with the president a five alarm affair.
TRUMP With thousands of votes are gathered. And I'm not going to say which party does it, but thousands of votes are gathered and they come in and they're dumped in a location. And then all of a sudden you lose elections that you think you're going to win. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD This narrative is designed to cast doubt on the 2020 election. And with that doubt, a horror show of authoritarian possibilities. This is not a free speech issue, it is a life or death democracy issue. Our society is ablaze in lies. So, please focus on the arsonists, not the firefighters, because all that we cherish risks burning to the ground.
That's it for this week's show, On the Media. It's produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, John Hanrahan, Xandra Ellin and Eloise Blondiau.
And our show was edited...by Brooke.
Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.