Lecture Series panel discusses 2020 election, mass media and free speech


President Donald Trump speaks to thousands of supporters at a rally Oct. 14 at the Des Moines International Airport.

Jack Nichols

In order to help unpack the chaotic 2020 election and understand the future direction of American politics, the Iowa State University Lecture Series hosted a virtual panel discussion Wednesday night.

The discussion, titled “Post-Election and Post-Impeachment: What’s Next?,” was moderated by Kelly Winfrey, assistant professor of the Greenlee School of Journalism. Panelists included also from Greenlee adjunct assistant professor Julie Roosa along with political science lecturer Zack Bonner and political science teaching professor Dirk Deam.

A number of topics were addressed throughout the night, including the Capitol siege, the second impeachment of Donald Trump, mass media and journalism and free speech and social media.

Roosa said public distrust in the media has risen to an all-time high. This has changed from the traditional “beacon” of truth and information news media used to be. 

On the topic of social media, Roosa said “it’s the wild west” with new laws still being written and rules being decided every day. Along with this, social media continues to increase as the main source of news for 40 percent of young people, Roosa added.

Deam said there is a difference between “traditional journalism” and mass media. Traditional journalism refers to “hard news,” facts and reports. Mass media offers a more sensational approach to fire up the consumers. 

“Mass media mobilizes people through a shared sense of grievance, hatred of others and then this inflated sense of moral urgency,” Dirk argued.

He provided the example of talk radio.

“Hardly a sentence goes by … without trying to blame someone or some group of individuals,” Deam said.

When mass media replaces politics, “We immediately go to the echo chamber of mass media,” Deam said.

The discussion then shifted to the events of Jan. 6 at the Capitol. Winfrey discussed the numerous types of people who were present at the riot, including supporters of Trump, white supremacists and QAnon members.

Bonner explained that QAnon was a “conspiracy tent” started on the fringe corner of the internet on forum boards. They hold a baseless view that Washington is filled with a “cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles” that they are attempting to out to the public.

Bonner continued that it has died down significantly when social media started to ban QAnon profiles and groups from their platforms. 

This idea of social media censorship led to the following question regarding the First Amendment and protected speech in relation to violence and Trump inciting the riot.

Roosa explained the legal grounds for incitement are drawn from a two-part test derived from the 1969 Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio. The test is used to determine if someone’s speech both attempted and was likely to incite “imminent lawless action.”

When applied to some of Trump’s speech rhetoric prior to the Capitol riot, Roosa explained that someone could “arrive at two different answers” when looking at the situation. In one camp, it could be seen as applicable and an attempt to likely incite lawless action. In the other camp, his speech could be seen as hyperbole and in a more “abstract sense rather than specifically encouraging or directing violent activity.”

This topic brought around the next topic: Trump’s impeachment. Winfrey asked how Trump being impeached twice will impact impeachments and presidents in the future.

Dirk explained that in the Constitution, the impeachment is only the process of bringing and validating criminal claims against the president. Then, if impeached, the president would face a trial by the Senate.

Even in the situation when impeachment is unlikely to pass due to partisan barriers, it is still important to set a precedent.  

“This needs to be a marker in our nation’s history that this is simply not tolerated,” Deam said.

Another discussion surrounding Trump’s impeachment was his activity on social media and social media platforms banning him. 

Roosa said the First Amendment applies to the government restricting the speech of private citizens but not to private companies, including social media outlets. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are legally free to play as gatekeepers and limit their platform how they see fit within their own rules and guidelines.

However, for politicians on social media, the rules are slightly different. When politicians are on social media platforms, they are barred from blocking any profiles from viewing and interacting with their page.

“Politicians have a responsibility to hear all voices,” Roosa said.

The discussion then pivoted to the overarching idea of “what’s next.”

Deam began to discuss how we are in a unique period with an “old government” out of sync with the majority populous. 

“I think there is a good chance we are in the midst of a historic change in American politics like that of 1932 with FDR or 1980 with Reagan,” Deam said. “Those earlier changes, like today’s, came amidst a sense that the old governing order, including the party in power, was no longer effective for dealing with the problems of the times.”

Dirk continued to explain students have never seen or participated in politics like this. This, in turn, helps perpetuate the type of mass media and social media “caricature politics” students have seen their whole lives.

Following on “what’s next,” Bonner commented on the future of the Republican Party and its relationship to Trump.

Bonner argued the Republican Party “is Trump’s party until he [leaves the party].” 

Bonner continued to discuss Trump’s successful Conservative Political Action Conference appearance with a fiery speech and victory in a straw poll of favorable 2024 Republican presidential candidates. 

“The First Amendment will be front and forward,” Roosa said addressing “what’s next” in free speech. “Social media and the responsibilities of those players in our communications field [will continue to develop].” Roosa added that hopefully, we return to the standard of trusting media and journalists. 

“I hope we can do more to improve that level of trust, for each of us to sharpen our media literacy skills,” Roosa said. “Support your local media.”

In a final discussion, Winfrey mentioned we need to build unity and brought up the question of building unity and moving forward with certain people, such as the white supremacists at the Capitol. 

“The traditional idea for what you do with ideas you disagree with is to offer different ideas, not to suppress the ones you disagree with,” Deam said. “The formation of our government system is built on plurality. You don’t want to suppress someone’s ideas unless they’re leading to violence. If their ideas are sound, then we will move toward them, and if not, we will reject them.”

On a closing note of unity, Dirk recalled the day after the 9/11 attacks where, spontaneously, thousands of people gathered around the Campanile to come together and speak what was on their minds to the crowd. 

“That was a precious moment where the whole country felt connected in a way, and unfortunate that it had to be in that context,” Dirk said. “What you try and do is cultivate moments like that, when people want to push you into a contentious political issue, talk about something you know won’t be contentious.”