High School Social Media and Free Speech

I thought these two New York Times articles were about the same incident. They are similar but not identical.  The first one, “A Racial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning,” was about a high school cheerleader who used the N-word on social media referring to a classmate when she was 15.  The second story, “A Cheerleader’s Vulgar Message Prompts a First Amendment Showdown,” was about a ninth grade girl who failed to make the cheerleading squad and expressed her dissatisfaction with the school in four letter words on Snapchat.

Since both of these stories seem to involve pretty cheerleaders, they might the basis for an episode of “Mean Girls.”  Both illustrate the increasing coarseness of conversation on social media, and often in person, in the United States.  But beyond the question of what is polite and decent is the question of what is legal?  The N-word has been part of the English language for hundreds of years, as have four-letter words.  Whatever happened to the old adage that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  Before social media, these words and actions would have evaporated into thin air.  Today they are preserved forever.

Does the fact that are not preserved in black and white mean that they are legally different from the same sentiments expressed verbally?  If Facebook has liability protection under section 230, why don’t these cheerleaders?

In the first case, the thought-police who run the University of Tennessee thought it was more important to recruit black athletes than white cheerleaders, and thus denied admission to the cheerleader in the first story in order to help them recruit black football and basketball players.

The family in the first case involving the University of Tennessee probably doesn’t have the millions of dollars necessary to pursue a case to the Supreme Court, or maybe they would just like to go about their lives without fighting the though-police at every turn.  They may not want to repay their accuser, Jimmy Gilligan, with the unbelievable hatred and vindictiveness he displayed in getting the girl refused admission to the University of Tennessee.

To me, these are not hard cases for the Supreme Court, I think they should come down on the side of free speech except in the oft-cited example of crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater.  Actions that may follow disliked words are another matter, but the words should be protected.

Fox News reported on the story in an article entitled, “New York Times accused of ‘glorifying’ cancel culture, ‘celebrating teenage revenge narratives.’ “The subtitle said, “’The tone of the NYT piece wasn’t skeptical or unnerved; it was nearly celebratory,’ one critic noted.” The Fox News piece concluded:

The framing of the story was ridiculed on social media as readers felt the Times was glorifying cancel culture.

“It’s interesting that the NY Times uses the word *reckoning* in their story on the revocation of a college admission, three years after the teenage girl used a racial slur in a video. *Reckoning* implies that the cancelation was deserved, rather than an outrageous overreaction,” one critic observed.

“The tone of the NYT piece wasn’t skeptical or unnerved; it was nearly celebratory. It was also filled with scattered accusations of racism to make the behavior of the student who sat on it and released it *three years later* seem more reasonable,” another reader added.

 

 

Russian Hacking

The media is overly excited about the Russian hacking using the SolarWinds update process.

First, was it Russia?  It seems likely that it was Russia, but not certain.  Anyone who is good enough to develop the SolarWinds hack would be smart enough to cover his tracks.  He may not have covered them perfectly, and we may be able to track down the hacker, but he may also have successfully covered his tracks.  He could be a Chinese hacker who copied the trademark signatures of the Russian hackers and who routed his hacks through Russian servers or websites.  It could be a hacker anywhere who did the same thing.  It requires computer expertise, but there are a lot of computer geniuses out there, including in the Middle East and Latin America.  I am surprised that no one has mentioned Edward Snowden in connection with the hacking.  He is a computer genius living in Russia who knows American computer security extremely well.  Is it possible that the Russians have gotten some help from him?

Second, I think that whatever this was, it was not an attack or the start of a war.  It looks more like intelligence gathering and testing of hacking techniques.  The test worked pretty well, since it went undetected for six months, but of course there may be other hacks out there that have been even more successful and have still not been detected.  In any case, nothing major has been damaged.  They have not even emulated the ransomware hackers, who have captured and held important data from hospitals and government offices for ransom.  They have not shut down the electric grid or turned off the water or sewage treatment in any cities.

I doubt that the hackers knew exactly what organizations they were going to be hacking into.  They knew that SolarWinds had lots of important clients, but they probably weren’t sure exactly which ones they would end up getting access to.  They may have succeeded far beyond their expectations, or it might have gone exactly as planned.  We don’t know.  Were their main targets government agencies, or private companies?  We don’t know.  The fact that the hackers did not steal money indicates to me that they were probably government-backed, and not private citizens hacking for fun and profit.

Sen. Mitt Romney compared the hack to the US invasion of Iraq, when we took out many of Iraq’s communications hubs with our missiles.  I do not think this is an appropriate comparison.  The hackers did not use their weapons, if indeed they have weapons that could bring down facilities in the US.  It was like developing and demonstrating new missiles, putting the enemy on notice that you have these capabilities and can use them if you choose to.  But they (whoever they are) have not chosen to.  But just as Saddam should have been wary of provoking the US, we should beware of provoking these hackers.

As nations develop new weapons they often turn to arms control to prevent the new weapons from leading to war.  We don’t have much experience with arms control type agreements for computer hacking, but some of the same principles apply, like Reagan’s maxim, “Trust buy verify.”  I am not sure how you verify an agreement to control hacking.  Bombs and missiles usually need to be tested in the open, where detection by satellites or other means is often possible.  Hackers can experiment on their own internal networks, which may be difficult or impossible for outsiders to monitor.  Of course the best test would be to see if you can penetrate the actual defenses of the country or business you might want to attack in the future.

Nevertheless, arms control agreements are like speed limits.  Not everyone obeys them, but they set standards of behavior and provide a basis for at least discussing violations, if not definitively proving and punishing them.

Another complication is non-state actors who hack for their own personal purposes.  It is a lot easier for an individual or small group to hack into a network than it would be for them to develop a bomb or missile.  Governments have developed systems for dealing with violent terrorists that are different from those for dealing with other governments.  We already have criminal penalties for individual hackers although they may be hard to apply to hackers operating from foreign countries.

I think it is worthwhile to begin discussions of some kind of arms control agreement covering hacking to get some idea of what’s possible and what’s not.  In an ideal world leading tech countries would work together to control individual bad actors and well as to monitor each other’s conduct.

Asset Inflation

The Fed has decided that creating asset inflation is the best response to the pandemic.  Thus, if you owned a $1 million house before the pandemic, you now probably own a $1.5 million house.  But if you don’t own a house, you will probably never be able to own a house.  If you had a $1 million stock portfolio before the pandemic, you probably now have a $1.5 million portfolio, but if you didn’t own lots of stock before the pandemic, you will probably never be able to own any.

The Fed has decided the only way to save the US economy is to make the rich richer and starve the poor.