The Corner

Science & Tech

George Orwell vs. Big Tech

(Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

There’s lots of hyperbole being thrown around by MAGA conservatives regarding Big Tech censorship. One quite popular trope, for instance, is to compare Twitter bans to Orwell’s 1984.

The distinction, journalists quickly point out, is between a totalitarian state’s repression and free-market choices. They’re correct, of course, even if they’re remarkable phonies. It is also true, though, as the author of 1984 argued in the unpublished 1945 introduction to his greatest work, Animal Farm, that a cultural environment that inhibits open discourse on a wide scale can be just as corrosive as state censorship:

But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the MOI [Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.

Orwell had wrongly assumed that journalists would remain sentinels of open discourse and publishers its most powerful enemy. Journalists, no longer content to debunk alleged untruths, are now oftentimes free expression’s biggest antagonists, pressuring and colluding with publishers to censor content they deem too dangerous. And the gatekeepers aren’t merely refusing to entertain certain topics — naturally, there has always been self-censorship; fortunately we also have numerous publishing companies — but proactively interfering in the ability of individuals to publish themselves on what are ostensibly neutral platforms.

Well, these are really dangerous opinions they’re peddling, you say. Yeah, aren’t they always? Kitten memes do not need defending. Unpopular ideas do. As insane and irresponsible as I find many of the theories related to the 2020 election, asserting that it was “stolen” is by definition political speech — just as it was when CNN, MSNBC, and every other major network were claiming that Russians had stolen democracy. And just like Black Lives Matter — though not, seemingly, Antifa — the vast majority of people who peddle these ideas do not incite or condone violence.

Tech companies should feel a responsibility to root out genuine incitement. Yet it seems unlikely that Orwell would see much value in handing the job of dictating acceptable speech to CNN anti-speech media reporters and rent-seeking executives at technology companies:

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines — being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact.

The tacit agreement is real. No responsible person dismisses the seditious nature of the Capitol riot. Nor should they whitewash the ideological nature of the rioting, looting, murder, and subversion — a sovereign area was erected in the middle of a major American city — we saw this summer. It “wouldn’t do” to mention it, I suppose. So, it’s at least somewhat “Orwellian” that the same partisan actors are now assigning collective guilt and, more alarmingly, trying to institute speech codes.

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