Silicon Valley’s behemoth companies are incapable of steering through the cross-pressures pushing them to censor more. These pressures come from social activists working on them through threatened boycotts, it comes from activists among their own employees and on their boards. These pressures come from centrist and liberal-leaning governments, which increasingly blame social media companies for their electoral failures. And surely these pressures also come from corporations who want to buy advertising on these massive platforms.
Several stories from the last week highlight the sheer variety of these pressures. The health-and-exercise movement Crossfit has recently seen one of its diet-discussion groups suppressed on Facebook. And the group subsequently urged the withdrawal of its members from the platform in stark terms, effectively alleging that Facebook is part of a larger corruptive force in social life:
Facebook is acting in the service of food and beverage industry interests by deleting the accounts of communities that have identified the corrupted nutritional science responsible for unchecked global chronic disease. In this, it follows the practices of Wikipedia and other private platforms that host public content but retain the ability to remove or silence — without the opportunity for real debate or appeal — information and perspectives outside a narrow scope of belief or thought.
Last week YouTube also took down a new documentary, Borderless, produced by right-wing activist Lauren Southern. The documentary features interviews with human traffickers, and undercover recordings of workers for non-governmental organizations who are assisting migrants. Southern is one of the many “alt-light”-style YouTube stars who have emerged there. YouTube’s decision to take down her video is renewing an argument on the right that access to digital platforms should be a right. This argument is being made vociferously in the renewed Human Events, by Will Chamberlain:
Southern has over 700,000 subscribers on YouTube. Those subscribers belong to her, not the company. She should be able to count on those subscribers seeing a film that violated none of the YouTube terms of service. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that Southern would have embarked on this project had she not assumed she could show the end product to her audience.
Southern didn’t simply rely on her platform to justify all the time and energy spent making Borderless; she relied on YouTube’s previous commitments to content neutrality to justify building up her platform in the first place. And yet YouTube is utterly flippant about deleting her content.
It’s not just a matter of being careless over its own commitments, of course. YouTubers could make an argument that not only the near-monopoly position of YouTube in social video but the fact that digital platforms like it were, because of their viewpoint neutrality, privileged over traditional media companies in the law, has allowed it to capture and profit so much of the public square, and so government has a compelling democratic interest in guaranteeing greater freedom of expression on these platforms.
Finally, Canada seems to be giving Silicon Valley a warning ahead of its upcoming elections. The current government, under Justin Trudeau, announced that it had come to “an agreement” with Microsoft and Facebook to “boost security.” It also happens to be the case that the government is currently underwater in the polls.
Canada’s government claims that bad actors, including Russia, could try to interfere with their election. Though this is something that is rumored or feared in all big elections. You may recall that ahead of the last presidential election in France, there were wild reports of Russian interference on behalf of populist nationalists; Russia had hacked Emmanuel Macron’s email. News reports flew out with the heavy implication that one would be carrying out the Russian interest to vote for the nationalist Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Oddly, the defense against election hacking took on an international character. America’s National Security Agency announced that indeed it had evidence that the Russians had hacked France’s democracy. Months later it was admitted that there was no evidence to suggest that Russia had hacked Emmanuel Macron’s email. In other words, by suggesting falsely, that foreign actors were interfering in French elections, security agencies had in reality tarred domestic political enemies as dupes and patsies.
Nevertheless, Canada is being quite plain that it expects to see action from Silicon Valley, or else. Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould has emphasized that Internet and social-media companies that don’t freely make their platforms acceptable to her government will face regulation. “The Wild West online era cannot continue — inaction is not an option,” said Gould. “Disinformation must not stand.”
Liberal governments (and journalists who act as their hype men) were not at all troubled by the way Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign abused the privacy settings on Facebook. They celebrated it. Sash Issenberg gushed in Technology Review that by using the power of social-media companies, “Obama’s campaign began the election year confident it knew the name of every one of the 69,456,897 Americans whose votes had put him in the White House.” But when Cambridge Analytica studied a much smaller data trove on behalf of conservative and populist causes, it became a major problem for democracy.
Let’s stipulate right from the start that Silicon Valley is making up the rules as it goes along. And it is terrible at the job of censorship and political management. It responds to one set of panicked demands in Germany, then another in America. It goes from one publicity crisis manufactured by the mainstream press to another. And we know which direction those cut. The left-winger who was arrested ahead of a plan to bomb Trump Tower bragged on Instagram about donating money to Hamas, an organization deemed terrorist by most Western governments. Facebook, the parent company, did nothing to restrain his behavior. But the weirdos of the online Right — even the fringes — get banned for doing acts of journalism.
Google banned advertising in the run-up to Ireland’s national referendum on abortion rights last year for fear of “meddling,” a claim that it did not substantiate. The campaign looking to introduce legal abortion welcomed the ban, because it plainly helped them. Facebook also censored an ad, by the conservative Iona Institute, that featured a computer-generated image of an intact fetus. It had to reverse that decision later.
The problem goes beyond the large social networks. Banks, credit-card companies, payment processors, fundraising sites, Internet-hosting sites, and registrars have all been pressured to apply some political tests against users. Looked at from a certain angle, left-wing activist groups have asked that tools and tactics developed by the military and private companies to combat the rise of ISIS and al-Qaeda be deployed against conservatives on the home front.
But let’s take it a step further and posit that Silicon Valley’s executives and their boards further lack the intellectual wherewithal to come up with, in their terms of service, privacy and expression guidelines that they would be willing to defend during a controversy. What then?
The traditional libertarian answer is to throw up one’s hands and say that private companies can do as they wish. Consumers and readers and Internet users will tire of these ever-changing rules, and surely these social-media giants will go into decline like others before them. For some of these companies, that does seem like one possible fate.
Another traditional conservative response is to see size as the problem. Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms have swallowed expression that had been previously spread over a decentralized Internet, and with power, they have become more corrupt, and make for easy targets for activism. One only has to convince a few handfuls of people in order to create wide-reaching change in this model.
But I’m not so sure that the urge to censor will die as competitors move into the social-media space, or if the Internet trends back toward a more decentralized network of individually maintained websites. Activists aren’t going to stop with social-media networks, or nibbling at the soft right-wing fringe of discourse. The U.S. Postal Service has a duty to carry National Review or Jacobin to any address. Have conservatives thought hard enough about the duties imposed on Silicon Valley, on Internet-service providers, or on payment processors?
The above suggests that no, we haven’t. And we better think fast.
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