• Deplatforming: Break Up the Teach Giants and Save Free Speech

    June 21, 2019

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America


     

    In an age of deplatforming and amid howls for censorship, the viability of free speech is at stake. Antitrust laws to break up the tech giants may be the last, best hope in this ideological war.

     

    The First Amendment doesn’t restrain censorship by private social media companies. Progressives today revel in their new-found power to enforce their own opinions through deplatforming. That only works because the platforms matter as near-monopolies; no one cares who gets kicked off MySpace. If you end the monopolies, you defang deplatforming. Trump is preparing to unleash the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission as antitrust warriors against the tech giants. That just might save the ability to hear ideas outside of echo chambers of bullied consensus.

    For much of American history media published things (on paper, then on radio, movies, TV, art shows, the Internet, etc.) and the First Amendment as law and as a cultural touchstone protected political thought. Nice thoughts you and your grandma agreed with and vile thoughts from ideologies your grandpa fought against. As in “I disagree with what you say, but will fight for your right to defend it.”

    Then social media hit some kind of cultural saturation point around the 2016 election. People couldn’t produce and consume enough opinion, and even traditional media dumped old-timey reporting in favor of doing stories based on what others posted online. It was a mighty climax for the Great Experiment in Free Speech, no filters, no barriers, a global audience up for grabs. Say something interesting and you went viral, your thoughts forever alongside Edward R. Murrow’s, Rachael Maddow’s, and the candidate herself.

    Donald Trump then did away with near-universal agreement over the right to speak, driven by a false belief too much free speech helped him get unjustly elected. Americans began not just to tolerate, but to demand, censorship to protect them. First they came for Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik, and few shed a tear. When Twitter initially dragged its feet banning Alex Jones, a “journalist” from CNN helpfully dug through Jones’ tweets to find examples of where he broke the rules. Free speech had been weaponized, using platforms like YouTube to put Alex Jones’ thoughts alongside Edward R. Murrow’s, Rachael Maddow’s, and the candidate herself.

    Jones (and soon Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Ann Coulter on campus, et al) had few friends outside his own supporters, so it was easy to condone his deplatforming. But that was only round one. Progressives discovered those first deplatformed voices were just the tip of a white supremacist iceberg, a legion of hate that sought to stomp out immigrants, people of color, the 50% of the population who were women, all shades of LGBT, and perhaps democracy itself. And what was fueling this dirty fire, allowing these men to organize (what the Bill of Rights calls “freedom of assembly” the deplatforming community calls “coordinative power”), raise money, and spread their bile (deplatformers call it red pilling)? Social media. Someone needed to do something about all this free speech before it was too late and America (re-)elected the wrong president again.

     

    Somewhere along the way progressives realized people who largely thought like them controlled key platforms in America. Offline that included college campuses. Jeff Bezos could simply buy the Washington Post to silence some voices and amplify others. Advertisers could shift corporate funds to put political thought they disliked out of business. Authors could have books pulled and lose long-standing contracts. And none were bound by the 1A. But social media was where the real action was. Twitter, with a tweet, could silence what once were inalienable rights. The sparse haiku clarity of the First Amendment was replaced with groaning Terms of Service that meant whatever the mob wanted them to mean. The freedom to speak on social media no longer existed independent of the content of speech. And thus the once loathed Heckler’s Veto, the shout-down, was reimagined as the righteousness of deplatforming, the online equivalent of actually punching Nazis to silence them. And the 1A bullies were thirsty.

    So there was nothing to prevent deplatforming journalist Steven Crowder for calling Vox writer Carlos Maza a “lispy queer Latin” on YouTube. In fact, Maza successfully campaigned across social media to get YouTube to demonetize the other journalist when the site initially hesitated. YouTube then announced an update to its hate speech policy broadly prohibiting “videos alleging a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion” and deleted the classic documentary studied in every film school, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Triumph of the Will. YouTube also deplatformed history teachers for uploading archive material related to Adolf Hitler, saying they breached the new guidelines banning hate speech.

    The site previously sent entire genres down the Memory Hole, banning “videos promoting or glorifying racism and discrimination.” That purge deplatformed News2Share, a site which covered everything from pro-Assange protests to 2A supporters rumbling with Antifa. YouTube proudly asserts since 2017 it has reduced views of “supremacist” videos by 80%.

    Gab was threatened by Microsoft with the cancellation of its web domain because of two “offensive” posts made by a minor Republican candidate. Facebook/Instagram banned “white nationalist and separatist” content, including at one point documentaries from Prager University. It also deleted posts from veteran journalist Tim Shorrock criticizing the New York Times’ coverup of American support for previous South Korean dictatorships. Facebook allegedly now has an office dedicated to watching what its users do outside of Facebook, looking at their work as journalists, what they say off-line, what tattoos they have, to determine whether they should be allowed to participate on Facebook. Pintrest deplatformed groups and messed with searches involving anti-abortion content. Twitter in turn suspended the accounts of those who blew the whistle on Pinterest in retaliation.

    Google refused ads for a gala featuring Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, something they claimed was in violation of their policy on “race and ethnicity in personalized advertising.” Google company sees itself at the nexus of ideological war, declaring, “Although people have long been racist, sexist, and hateful in many other ways, they weren’t empowered by the Internet to recklessly express their views with abandon.”

    Google might soon add its terms of service to the First Amendment. A leaked document from the tech giant argues that because of a variety of factors, including the election of Donald Trump, what we call the “American tradition” of free speech may no longer be viable. The report lays out how Google can serve as the world’s “Good Censor,” a stern hall monitor figure protecting us from harmful content and, by extension, dangerous behavior, like electing the wrong president again. And all this comes not a moment too soon — the Southern Poverty Law Center claims it has taken “blood in the streets for tech companies to take action.” More simply put, the group just says “tech supports hate.” There are many more examples of those deplatformed.

    But why wait for someone to commit hate speech when technology allows deletion when hate is largely still a thought crime? Google developed a tool called Perspective which aims to root out “hate speech” before it spreads. The software uses machine learning to spot “toxic” content in online conversations to preemptively redirect their trajectory. The tool, designed to monitor comments section, could also be deployed against content creation in real time. As you type.

    Websites too right of center have serially lost their web hosts and gone dark. Website security company Cloudflare “woke up … in a bad mood and decided to kick [a hate site] off the Internet.” On another site, parents who started a petition questioning their local school’s transgender policy were deplatformed. I was deplatformed by Twitter. There are many more examples. Mashable claimed overall 2018 was the year “we cleaned up the Internet,” while Vice announced deplatforming “works” and celebrated censorship of fellow journalists.

    A version of deplatforming has moved off-line as well. The ACLU — the ACLU which once stood by actual Nazis because the beautiful concept of free speech was so much more important than whatever dumb stuff those Nazis said in Skokie which no one remembers anyway– started applying an ideological/political litmus test to which free speech cases it would support following Charlottesville. Some people are now deplatformed out of the justice system.

    Though the bulk of deplatforming is aimed at right of center voices, there are examples from the left, often cited as “good news” that “see, this isn’t a progressive jeramaid.” But in fact more censorship is not a good thing for free speech, however equally distributed. And this is not as much a slippery slope question as it is ideological warfare. Progressives want to eliminate the opposing ideas. They have no problem with free speech that, for example, criticizes religion, or sends drag queens to read to children in public libraries. Flag burners are welcome! Conservatives, not so much.

     

    Two visions of free speech have overtaken America. One is now widely dismissed as dangerous because it fought for a marketplace of ideas that could include hate speech, while another danced a jig because America’s new censors are ideologically sympathetic corporations currently supporting the progressive agenda. The latter group is comprised of people (some 69% of American college students believe intentionally offensive language should be banned) seemingly unable to project a future where those corporate censors’ might support a different set of views. Instead, as a mob today they gleefully point to a viewpoint as “hate speech” and let @jack purify it away.

    It is very important to underline there is no law against hate speech. Hate speech is an umbrella term used by censorship advocates to describe anything they don’t want others to be able to listen to or watch. It is very flexible and thus very dangerous. As during the McCarthy-era in the 1950s when one needed only to label something “communist” to have it banned, so it is today with the new mark of “hate speech.” The upshot is that apart from some very narrow definitions of violence-inducing words, the obligation exists to the concept of free speech independent of the content of that speech. This is also one of the most fundamental precepts of free speech in a democracy. There need be no protections for saying things that people agree with, things that are not challenging or debatable or offensive; free speech is not really needed for the weather and sports parts of the news. Instead, free speech is there to allow for the most rude, offensive, hateful, challenging stuff you (or your neighbor, your political party, your government) can imagine.

    The Founding Fathers, themselves now seen as misogynist slave owners except the scrubbed version of Hamilton, had left a ticking time bomb inside the Bill of Rights. You in fact could not punch nazis to silence them without going to jail. The 1A protected hate speech! There is no justification for restricting speech so that people are not offended. Speech may offend, indeed that may be its point, but bad ideas are then defeated by better ideas. Yet today Google (and Facebook, Twitter, and their successors) seem to perceive these old ideas as more outmoded than the powdered wigs the Founders wore when they wrote them.

     

    What to do? Efforts to extend the First Amendment to entities like Facebook, arguing they are the new public squares (seven of 10 American adults use a social media site), have been unsuccessful.

    Trying to classify social media companies as “publishers” has also been unsuccessful. They insist they are “platforms.” They say they are like the phone company, which lets you talk to a friend but exercises zero control over what you say.

    Being a platform is desirable for Facebook and the others as they have no responsibility for the content they print, no need to create transparent rules or appeals processes for deplatforming, and users have no legal recourse. Publishers,on the other hand, are responsible for what they print, and can be taken to court if they print something libelous or maliciously false.

    Social media’s claim to be a platform and not a publisher is based on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That section however was predicated on social media companies being neutral public forums in return for offering them legal protections against being sued over content they present. Companies like Twitter now want it both ways – they want the protection being a platform like the phone company offers but after the 2016 election they also want to ideologically manipulate their content as publishers do.

    Breaking through the platform-publisher question will require years of court battles. The growth of much of the web is driven by the lack of responsibility for the content third parties chuck online. It is a complex situation when applied to everything from knitting site hosts to Nazi forums, and across international borders.

    Yet social media entities’ control over speech is so significant a more immediate solution is demanded. Google owns 90% of the search market, three quarters of mobile and 70% of desktop browsing, and along with Facebook, 50% of online ads. YouTube dominates video. Facebook makes up two-thirds of all social media, with Twitter holding down most of the rest. Large enough on their own, the platforms also work in concert. One bans say Alex Jones, most of the others follow and then whomever is last to act is chided into action by the mob and threatened with advertiser boycotts. Eventually (as with Jones) Venmo and Paypal also cut them off.

    With legal and legislative solutions ineffectual for preserving free speech online, enter the major antitrust enforcement agencies of the executive branch. The Department of Justice is preparing to investigate Google’s parent company Alphabet, while the Federal Trade Commission is doing the same for Facebook. The goal may be to break the tech giants into multiple smaller companies, as was done at the dawn of mass electronic communication in America.

    Monopolies on speech first appeared as national media appeared, in the form of radio stations linked into networks. For the first time, an opinion expressed on air in New York was broadcast everywhere. The once-mighty Mutual Broadcasting System successfully filed a complaint which led to a Supreme Court battle claiming NBC and CBS controlled the national market. NBC was ultimately forced to split into two networks, Red and Blue. Regulation followed. The 1934 Communications Act required broadcast licensees to operate in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” This translated into things like the Fairness Doctrine, which requires broadcasters to cover politically important issues, ensuring various points of views are given equal time. The public-interest obligation also protects against one company controlling all the stations in a market.

    The end of social media mega-companies, with none big enough to silence effectively any significant amount of free speech, would be a clumsy fix for a problem the Founders never imagined – citizens demanding corporate censorship because they didn’t like the results of the last election. It is nowhere near the comprehensive solution of an expanded First Amendment a democracy should grant itself, but in a world where progressives fail to understand the value of free speech it may provide enough of a dike against censorship to hold the waters back until reason again takes hold.

     
     

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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  • Recent Comments

    • Joe said...

      1

      You hit the nail squarely on the head when you said that the last election has finally led to the novel concept of “too much free speech.” We’re not talking about yelling “fire” in a crowded theater here, but rather labeling ideas you disagree with as “hateful” – and then censoring them. A clever and effective tactic to be sure, but the absolute height of hypocrisy for someone pretending to be progressive. (And equally reprehensible when actual fascists do it too, but at least they aren’t being quite as hypocritical when they dip into Goebbels playbook – the Nazis did invent the “big lie” after all.)

      06/21/19 5:15 PM | Comment Link

    • Joe said...

      2

      P.S. Are the social media giants trying to “teach” us what to think, or trying to “tell” us which positions are currently acceptable for discussion in our supposedly civil society? And more importantly, what would your DCM have said if you’d asked him/her to clear a cable with this Subject line, late on a Friday before Happy Hour at the Marine House! Happy summer and cheers!

      06/21/19 6:28 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      3

      Until reason takes hold? Well, we can wish for that time but for now we’re stuck with an Alex Jones type AND Howard Stern- a guy who in my opinion is dangerously clueless about his own ignorance. His so called transgressive show is plain juvenile. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know nor does a sociopath like Jones. But the most needy and clueless will always find a way to grab the microphone and draw a needy crowd.

      06/23/19 3:36 PM | Comment Link

    • LJ said...

      4

      I can not understand why people who favour censorship and are afraid of free speech are called “progressive”. I think they would more acurately be called “reactionaries”.

      06/28/19 1:39 AM | Comment Link

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