It feels like we hit a big milestone this week in what’s normally a benign affair: Electors across the country cast their ballots and reaffirmed that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States. The Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, seemed to accept the results, though it’s been nearly seven weeks since Election Day. Are you worried that the drum beat of disinformation around the election will take away credibility from the Biden administration, or will this all just feel like a bad dream in January?
Look, I think there’s a lot of temptation to believe and hope that we will be able to put this behind us. Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist had what I thought was a really important column out yesterday in which she argued that really the onus sits with the news media to turn the spotlight away from Trump, and that they just need to simply wean themselves off him and stop giving him this endless 24-hour, wall-to-wall coverage.
The problem, of course, is that he’s been such great bait for ratings at networks like MSNBC and CNN, which I’ve seen surges in viewership over the last few years. I see this as I tune in—whatever his latest antics are, they’re outrageous. His legal claims, his protestations, his tweets—that seems to suck up all the air from a new administration that’s making cabinet nominations, laying groundwork for a much more comprehensive response to the pandemic, and taking on a series of important issues, or preparing to do so. I think it’s on all of us to go “cold turkey,” as Margaret put it, and really make a determined commitment that, as of January 20th, we are moving on as a nation.
That will help even Trump voters to move on. I think we’ve got a hardened core of people who he has worked with over the course of four years to try to convince that credible journalism, mainstream news media, even government scientists and civil servants are not to be trusted. He has introduced them as this sort of alternate universe of facts that he spews out by his social media accounts and right-wing news outlets—increasingly, right-wing news outlets as Fox News seem to move away from him. That’s a big problem—the hardened core of people who’ve been cut off from fact-based discourse. But I think if his visibility and potency within our overall media landscape begins to diminish, some of those people will peel away. He’s not going to be as exciting anymore, he doesn’t have the patina of the White House, his name won’t be seen everywhere and talked about all the time. So that’s the direction we need to go. I don’t think we can just assume that his half-life winds down—we have to decide that this needs to happen, and to make it happen.
Switching briefly from traditional media to online: The platform TikTok this week removed social media star Perez Hilton from its platform. The company said it was for violations of its terms of service, while Hilton says it was after a mob of teens and tweens complained about his snarky treatment of influencers on the platform. The facts are still pretty murky, but I was surprised to see so many young people call for an outright ban. Do you think this incident tells us about how free speech as a principle is fairing among a younger generation?
I have serious concerns about waning faith in free speech among the rising generation. That’s a major theme of my book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. I really try to make the case to a rising generation about how free speech is essential to so many of the goals that they want to advance—whether it’s climate change or racial justice, or other issues. So that is a great concern. I don’t, frankly, see this TikTok brouhaha over Perez Hilton as what I would flag as a particularly concerning development.
TikTok is largely an entertainment platform—there are certain norms and worries that operate there. It’s not a major news source for people—not yet, although that can change, and we have to monitor it. So I suppose you’re right that there’s a kind of censorious impulse at work, but there’s all kinds of noxiousness that happens on these platforms. The role of these influencers is so bizarre—you have teenagers who have tens of millions, or hundreds of millions, of followers based on some clever dance videos. It’s a very strange ecosystem, and it’s not really a forum for much civic discourse, although there is some.
It would be great if a platform like TikTok were to take on the mantle of trying to educate its very young and engaged user base about the principles of free expression, or spark a dialogue about that in relation to these demands—that would be a constructive thing to do. I don’t expect to see it happen, of course. It remains a Chinese-owned platform that is subject to Chinese national security laws, so any user data that’s collected by the platform could be requisitioned by the Chinese government, and TikTok would have no recourse to withstand such demand. So I don’t expect any forward-leaning leadership when it comes to free speech from TikTok, but I would say I don’t think we should get too distracted by the tug and pull among the influencers on this kind of platform.
Finally, let’s just turn our sites internationally. Iran last weekend executed journalist Ruhollah Zam. It was just a year after he was abducted, after being tricked into traveling to Iraq, and he was forced to stand trial on totally bogus charges. As the U.S. relationship with Iran just becomes increasingly strained—that country heaves under embargoes—are you worried that we’ll see more dissidents like Zam face brutal punishment and even the death penalty?
Yes, there’s a couple of issues here. Of course, we are gravely worried about dissidents within Iran—we’ve been doing a global campaign on behalf of Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was furloughed early in November, but then sent back to prison. She is a very prominent dissident with a lot of political potency, which is what has caused the Iranian government to want to muzzle her so extensively, to reverse themselves, and send her back to prison. We’re doing a premiere of the documentary about her next week with a high-level panel, including Nick Kristof, and I encourage people to tune in.
But there’s also another phenomenon at work here, which has to do with the long arm of the Iranian government, and it affects dissidents and writers around the world who are of Iranian descent, living elsewhere and yet are not really safe from the reach of the Iranian security forces. In the case of Zam, it seems like the facts are not fully disclosed, but it probably looks as if he was really lured back into Iraq, thinking that he would be safe, and it was a trap that the Iranian security forces had set. Then they abducted him, sent him back to Iran, and sentenced him to death. He had been living in France. So what is alarming is that they are clearly tracking these people who are in the diaspora of those who are outspoken critics, as Zam was.
We are in touch with some other Iranian writers here in the United States who have been subject to threats to their lives, who are harassed, and it’s not clear they’re safe even here, on our own soil. That’s something that’s really alarming—these kinds of nefarious tactics to lure them to territories where the Iranian government can have a freer hand. This is just a really graphic example of that, in Zam’s case, but it’s something that all of these dissidents are alert to—they just wonder how far the reach of this long arm goes. So this is a very serious issue for us as an American PEN thinking about writers living here, in our own country, that may nonetheless be in direct and mortal danger from a foreign government.
Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America author and of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All