When Big Tech Claims Private Companies Have the Right to Censor Users, Keep This In Mind
Updated: Oct 27, 2021
Government doesn’t need to silence us. Their social media partners are doing the job for them.
“It is much easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” — Unknown
In the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have launched a purge of Orwellian scope — taking down websites, removing channels, and closing user accounts en masse. It’s a warp-level acceleration of a crackdown that’s become part of our “new normal.”
Until now, many of us have tried to ignore the suppression that has slowly ratcheted up each year. We’ve excused what would otherwise disturb us because we believe that people who spread “misinformation” and undermine democracy are “dangerous” miscreants who don’t deserve a voice.
But dangerous miscreants aren’t the only ones being silenced now.
Even people who didn’t attend the January 6 rally and never incited any violence are losing their Twitter accounts. Conservative websites that don’t spread fake news and have existed for years without incident are being erased. Ron Paul, a libertarian, was locked out of his Facebook account — ironically, after penning an op/ed criticizing Big Tech censorship.
And then there’s Parler.
Amazon suspended hosting of the conservative social networking service because some members used it to “stoke fear, spread hate,” and “coordinate the insurrection at the Capitol.” The move was as puzzling as it was alarming: when anarchist groups were accused of advocating violence and harassment on Facebook in 2020, the platform wasn’t deprived of service; the perpetrators were simply banned. Yet Amazon made the decision to kill Parler — punishing all users, even those who were peaceful and respectful.
Any reasonable person can see what’s happening now: in its effort to root out bad actors, Big Tech is silencing a wide swath of Americans — shamelessly — based solely on their political affiliation and ideology.
Of course, none of this would be surprising if it occurred in China, Venezuela, or Russia. But it’s hard to fathom, and even harder to rationalize, how something like this could happen in America. Yet that hasn’t stopped some people from trying.
Big Tech’s defenders have downplayed these dystopian developments by relying on the law. They insist what we’re seeing isn’t censorship because the First Amendment only applies to government, not private companies. Like it or not, they can do whatever they want to whoever they want.
It’s an argument that makes perfect sense — if we believe that institutions function as they “should” and government plays no role in suppressing speech on these platforms. But if we look deeper, we might see our reality isn’t what we think it is; it’s being distorted. We might realize that our government is censoring us — indirectly — by using private companies to do what it (legally) can’t.
That our government would want to control what we think and believe shouldn’t come as a complete shock. It’s used propaganda for decades; the tools and tactics have just changed over time.
During World War I, the federally-funded Film Division produced and screen patriotic newsreels in movie theaters that glamorized the heroism of Allied troops. During World War II, the government bombarded Americans with “Uncle Sam Wants You!” posters to boost enlistment and staged marketing campaigns to recruit women to work in factories to support the war effort. It was corny and heavy-handed, but it got the job done.
Fast forward eighty years.
Americans have become a jaded bunch, and their confidence in government has hit a record low, declining from more than 70% in 1960 to only 17% in 2019. Flagrant attempts to massage public opinion would surely encounter heavy resistance today. So how does a government facing a trust crisis dispense propaganda to a skeptical public? It finds a workaround.
While Americans’ trust in news media has fallen to 41%, that's still more than twice as high as their faith in government. That means a critical mass are still influenced by what they believe is a free and independent press.
What would happen if a handful of companies owned 90% of these media outlets? And what if these companies were incentivized to maintain good relationships with government that could reward them with tax breaks and other beneficial legislation? Under these conditions, a cooperative media could become the most powerful agents of propaganda available to government. They could effectively become another branch of government.
I’ve posed this as a hypothetical, but it's actually the landscape we face now. In fact, the U.S. government openly admitted to co-opting the media twenty years ago.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the military allowed “embedded” journalists to accompany troops and personalize coverage of the war. General Tommy Franks praised the success of this strategy, proudly describing the press — long referred to as the “fourth estate” — as the “fourth front” in a public relations campaign to win hearts and minds. As Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn observed, it was a tactic that also created a “distorted view of war” by “producing a skewed picture of events.”
But a nation mired in its post-9/11 trauma and grief couldn’t see this for what it really was: shameless propaganda. We didn’t realize the news media were merely regurgitating, without vetting, the intel the military fed them— right down to the bogus foundation for the war, itself: weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussen never, in fact, had.
Two decades ago, the U.S. government used traditional news media to help fight a war on the battlefield. Today, it’s using social media to help it wage a different kind of battle: a war for our minds. That may sound crazy — until you consider when and why Big Tech initiated its crackdown. It happened rather suddenly, in the Fall of 2016.
That’s when U.S. intelligence (incidentally, the same agencies that assured us Iraq had weapons of mass destruction) determined that Russian operatives had interfered with the presidential election. That’s when Congress called Mark Zuckerberg and other Big Tech CEOS on the carpet and relentlessly grilled them in hearings. Irate lawmakers accused these negligent social media titans of “missing” signs of foreign interference that enabled a Trump presidency.
Under heavy fire from people with the power to craft legislation that could make or break their businesses, Zuckerberg & company promised to crack down on “misinformation” to prevent election interference in the future. They pledged to do their part to save democracy by employing self-appointed fact checkers to determine what was “truth” and what wasn’t, what information users could share and what was off-limits.
Congress couldn’t police what Americans said and thought because it would violate the First Amendment. So it appointed Big Tech to do the job. Big Tech became government’s Ministers of Truth. But policing election interference was just the beginning; their marching orders have expanded dramatically since 2016.
After the Coronavirus outbreak, social media platforms began purging “misinformation” that endangered public health. You Tube banned any content "containing medical advice that contradicts World Health Organisation (WHO).” Since the 2020 election, Facebook removes posts containing the phrase “Stop the Steal,” and You Tube deletes any videos alleging voter fraud (despite the fact that these platforms took no action to remove content alleging Russian interference with the 2016 election). As a result of these draconian purges, Facebook and Twitter have lost a staggering $51 billion in stock value.
This isn’t how profit-oriented companies are supposed to operate. Private industry has no legitimate business interest in adopting measures that serve a public policy agenda but harm shareholders. They can’t have it both ways: on one hand, claiming to be creatures of capitalism, but on the other asserting an obligation to serve the public good.
It remains to be seen if and how these companies will recover from the loss of users and advertising revenue — or if Congress will provide financial assistance — but one thing is becoming clear: social media platforms increasingly function more as vehicles to control the flow of information that runs counter to the narrative dispensed by government and the “experts” who support it.
We should have seen all of this coming in 2013 when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the dizzying scope of a surveillance state, but the red flags he raised were mostly ignored. Since then, the National Security Agency has collaborated extensively with social media “partners” to mine a treasure trove of user data. The recently divulged surveillance program called PRISM allows the NSA and the FBI to directly tap into the central servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple to extract user audio and video chats, photographs and e-mails.
Understand what this means: the U.S. government has partnered with social media to track everything we say and think. Yet we’re supposed to believe when these platforms restrict our speech, they’re doing so of their own accord — free from any government influence.
Big Tech’s defenders also rationalize censorship by arguing that private enterprise is sacrosanct. They insist these companies can adopt whatever policies they choose in a free market; if consumers don’t like their services, they’re welcome to take their business elsewhere. Again, this makes perfect sense — if we really have a free market that affords us the luxury of choice.
But this is yet another distortion of our reality.
If we look deeper, we see that a handful of private companies control the vast majority of all internet and mobile communications. Big Tech has spent hundreds of billions of dollars consolidating their marketshare and “partnering” with a panoply of companies in key industries. Like drug pushers, they have addicted us to their platforms and services by embedding them into all aspects of our lives and commerce.
This isn’t a free market; it’s an oligopoly controlled by oligarchs. And our Department of Justice has done nothing to stop it. The agency we rely upon to enforce antitrust laws has turned a blind eye.
In the absence of government oversight, tech oligarchs have fashioned themselves into cybergods. They, alone, wield the power to delete us from systems that have become critical parts of our social and political voices. When Facebook closed Trump’s account, it led to a cascade of online banishments: Twitter, Instagram, You Tube, Stripe, Shopify, and nearly a dozen others followed suit and banned him and his supporters. It was a chilling reminder that our profiles, our data — our online existence— can all evaporate in the blink of an eye.
And this leads to the most disturbing aspect of the power and influence of Big Tech: the consequences of censorship go far beyond freedom of speech; they can affect our “real” lives.
Today, most businesses rely on the internet for sales and marketing — and Big Tech has shown us that they can kill any of them, on a whim, by denying them access to critical services. If Google's or Apple's online stores make it impossible for users to download a company’s app, then the app becomes useless. If you’re a small retailer who depends on Amazon or you live in a small town whose neighborhood businesses disappeared during the pandemic, you’re out of luck if Jeff Bezos deletes you. And our dependence on these online services will only increase in the future as lockdowns force us to work remotely and more small businesses go extinct.
An oligopoly that can monitor our thoughts and behavior should never have this kind of power. It's an episode of Netflix's Black Mirror waiting to happen.
Imagine if two private companies were allowed to provide 95% of food in the country. Now imagine if they could refuse to sell their products to consumers who strayed from a code of conduct that could change on a moment’s notice. Would we rationalize this by telling ourselves, “Well, they’re a private company. They can refuse to sell food to bad people”? Of course, broadband isn’t as critical as food — yet — but we’re on a slippery slope when we allow private companies to control any vital service or product and deny access based on our behavior.
Seeing the people we dislike silenced and deleted may confirm our sense that we’re on the “right” side of things. We may feel “safe”now. But we could easily find our personal ideology on the ropes at some point. The tech oligarchs who silence our enemies and deprive them of services today also have the power to do the same to us tomorrow. Whether we’re a liberal, a conservative, or anything in between, we need to appreciate the gravity of what’s happening and what it could lead to.
Today, people who attend MAGA rallies are being singled out as “domestic terrorists.” But after Trump is out of office and the white supremacist threat is put on the back burner, will BLM protesters pushing for more aggressive reform be called terrorists if riots break out in cities?
As the U.S. economy plunges into free fall, will people be labeled terrorists for protesting predatory banking practices and Wall Street bailouts? Will members of either party be branded as dangerous elements for speaking out against elite interests?
Will the criteria for “inciting violence” be expanded to include speech that’s merely critical of government officials, policies, and institutions?
With the precedent being set now, there’s absolutely nothing that prevents any of these scenarios from unfolding. If we excuse this latest attack on free speech because we think it only hurts deranged Trump supporters, we will all pay the price. It’s just a matter of time.