SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Facebook announced this week it had removed 32 pages and fake accounts linked to a suspected political influence campaign from Russia. That left some activists confused and free speech advocates concerned. Organizers of a counter protest, planned in response to an upcoming Unite the Right white supremacist gathering, for example, were contributing their grassroots support to a Facebook event page that was deemed fake and taken down by Facebook. Ben Wizner is director of the Speech Privacy and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and joins us from New York. Mr. Wizner, thanks for being with us.
BEN WIZNER: It's my pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: What are your concerns?
WIZNER: The first point I want to make is that I do think that our democracy is strong enough and resilient enough to withstand political propaganda campaigns. Propaganda is one of the costs of living in an open society and having open speech platforms. My concern is that our response to this threat may actually be more threatening to our rights than the threat itself. In this case, Facebook's attempts to clean up this attempted interference resulted in a page that was being used by actual anti-racist organizers to protest neo-Nazis in Washington. And that's just an example of what happens when we ask a corporation to be our censors.
SIMON: But that raises this question. What about a response that someone might make that Facebook, after all, is a private company, and they can decide to essentially publish or not publish whatever they want to?
WIZNER: No, that's absolutely right. And this isn't a response from a legal standpoint. Facebook has its own rights under the First Amendment to be the kind of platform that it wants. Facebook has said that it doesn't want people using fake accounts, especially in large numbers, and they have absolute right to try to clean up their platform in that way. It does concern me, though, that Facebook has become such an indispensable platform for free speech. Not just in the United States but around the world. That if we are demanding, if Congress is demanding, if the public is demanding that they protect us from all offense - from all untruth - that they're not going to be able to do that very well when two point three billion people are able to upload content without review. And what's going to happen is that they're going to end up taking down valuable content. And the most motivated actors - bad actors - are going to find a way to get around their censorship.
SIMON: Let me put it this way. Should - to use that unfortunate phrase - state actors from other countries - not just Russia - using Facebook to try to influence American thought and politics be protected speech?
WIZNER: I don't think that the Russian trolls sitting in a factory in St. Petersburg have First Amendment rights to communicate without restriction on Facebook. I don't think that's the issue here. The question is are we being reasonable when we expect an open platform like this to be able to wholly protect us from being exposed to that kind of information? But I do worry about overreacting to this threat of propaganda. And I do think that on some level we have to trust our citizens to be able to separate fact from fiction.
SIMON: Do you have any words for Americans who support free speech but don't know where to turn and who to trust on social media?
WIZNER: Well, one of the things that's been encouraging in the last two years is how much Americans have turned to more trusted sources of news. People really are looking for more reliable news sources. And that's a positive development. It's never been easier to find good, responsible, interesting news. It's never been harder to avoid the bad stuff. So, I just think that what we really need to be teaching here is citizenship and judgment. And I do have some faith in the American people that they're going to figure this out.
SIMON: Ben Wizner, who's director of the ACLU's Speech Privacy and Technology Project, thanks so much.
WIZNER: My pleasure. Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.