In conversations about online extremism, the question of platforms inevitably arises. YouTube, for example, may be held culpable for featuring video recommendations that lead young men down rabbit holes of far-right content. According to Rebecca Lewis’ infamous report on YouTube extremism, this includes channels as innocuous as Joe Rogan’s. Rogan has been labeled a far-right influencer by Axios and other elements of the mainstream press.
The label far-right is a curious one. The Young Turks’ Ana Kasparian, for example, has said that Democratic Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard is “not progressive.” On Joe Rogan’s podcast, Bari Weiss called Gabbard “monstrous” and an “Assad toadie.” Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang also risks being disowned by many progressives, merely because he has attracted a contingent of Pepe-adjacent memers calling themselves the Yang Gang—probably because his offer of UBI at $1000 per month appeals to unemployed young men without a future.
The far-right category is tricky. It can be applied without any serious definition of what it constitutes. Consider the accusation leveled against Jill Stein of running interference for the Russians in 2016. Is the Green Party, then, far right? Were they steeped in Russian propaganda and prepared to throw the election for Trump? In the farthest reaches of Twitter, one can even find entire communities convinced that Senator Bernie Sanders was at least a partial Russian agent, a useful idiot who tried to steal the election from Hillary Clinton to satisfy his personal pride.
The problems with online censorship have become more obvious than ever, in an age in which political definitions simply cannot be agreed upon. It all depends on which ideological actors are controlling a particular platform—there is no telling how a given standard will be applied.
If ten thousand people on social media assert that a particular trend is Russian subterfuge, or alt right in nature, and pressure Facebook or Twitter to remove that content or be deemed responsible, must the company make a move, merely to avoid accusations of being complicit in the rise of Donald Trump or the spread of mass shootings? And could the draconian standards, implemented by corporate board rooms later be expanded in countless irresponsible ways?
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is right to argue for the break-up of big tech. In many ways, Senator Warren’s proposal is an indication of an obvious and troubling development of the American public sphere—that there isn’t one. The realm of discourse online is wholly private, owned by particular companies, and, thus, these private platforms, where the First Amendment does not apply, constitute a wholly corporate polity.
This privatization of the public in cyberspace is a notable blind spot for anti-trust regulation. In the Roosevelt era, Standard Oil monopolized the flow of fuel—this was a public harm. But a private monopoly on information is far worse. President Donald Trump uses a private platform to deliver ostensibly public announcements. This forces the platform to behave as a utility, a political open forum sanctioned by the state itself—yet it is run by a Twitter oligarchy, without oversight from a democratic polity.
Consider our relationship to information and corporate power. Twitter, a company spawned in 2006, has completely transformed how the president, Congress and media relate to information. A private company happened to produce a product that changed the entire landscape of public dialogue in under ten years, forcing the news cycle to abide by rules set down by this wholly private organization, by virtue of its market success, and the choice of Donald Trump to use it as a public megaphone.
Whether Twitter is good or bad for our discourse, our ability to think or our mental stability is a secondary consideration. What is most important is the sea change in how information is transmitted. To be a journalist, to stay informed, to hear your president, you must use a platform that does not belong to the American people, but to shareholders.
The topic of deplatforming, or banning particular users from the site, therefore has sinister connotations. You could never ban a person from a public square, where a politician might stand and give a speech, but you can be banned from Twitter, where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump are shaping the nation with every second’s new fevered update.
The call to deplatform, censor or otherwise set rules as to who can say what online is extremely troubling. It amounts to an argument in favor of the unjustified power of a particular corporate hierarchy over the speech of millions. Elizabeth Warren understands this—but the left at large, at least on Twitter, seem far more open to the idea of simply deplatforming individuals who are named and categorized as far right. This nebulous category can include even Democrats such as Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang and Joe Rogan, depending on how their fanbases develop, independently of their control, and how media chooses to interpret their ideas.
The left case against deplatforming boils down to these three principles:
- The decision to deplatform is controlled by unaccountable private entities.
- Deplatforming creates multiple public spheres, which do not intersect, thus dividing the national discourse and creating safe spaces for bigotry.
- It will inevitably be used against leftists the moment the wind changes, and a company decides that the perceived hard left must be censored too.
The first point is the easiest to convey. When Twitter or Facebook tweak an algorithm or ban an account, a private corporation whose main interest is profit and self-protection is being handed the tools to construct an Overton window.
Only a society enraptured by total trust in its entrepreneurial philosopher kings could possibly endorse this. Arguments that Twitter and Facebook, as private entities, have the right to control speech on their platforms, perform the dodge of privatizing the commons and then setting forth private corporate rules as the permanent standard going forward. If all speech in the digital era is hosted on corporate-owned platforms, then technological ingenuity has rendered the public sphere a private one. This sleight of hand is absurd and directly undermines the principles of the First Amendment.
Second, deplatforming far-right figures bisects the public into multiple societies, who do not speak to one another. Alternative social media websites like Gab and Minds are doomed to fail because they primarily recruit communities pushed out of mainstream social media channels, and have become safe spaces for far-right views. Inevitably, a conversation forms underground, to which mainstream channels are not privy.
Consider the perils of a divided society in light of the recently closed Mueller investigation. In mainstream media, it appeared likely that either Donald Trump or one of his family members would be indicted for collusion with Vladimir Putin. This did not happen. Those in a conservative echo chamber, who disbelieved in this possibility all along, now feel wholly vindicated. The overwhelmingly Democratic press, which have monopolized the conversation, is now left empty handed, and risks being written off altogether, as fake news.
We all have to live together in physical space, so why should we encourage separation in digital space? Alternative media are looking more and more like a means of exit from the idea of a sustained public sphere, a prelude to the formation of multiple American societies, each operating on the basis of different mythologies. The alternative to this, of course, is to have Google itself ban alternative social media platforms like Gab, and also wipe forums like 4chan and 8chan off the internet, to ensure such communities cannot form around far-right ideas.
But this would be a precedent certain to destroy free speech for decades to come. It would imbue one of the most powerful corporations in human history with total power to determine who uses the twenty-first century equivalent of the printing press, the now-private internet, which functions as a public utility, but is slowly being purchased away.
In the second half of the twentieth century, Noam Chomsky and the ACLU—a left-wing intellectual and a left-wing institution—defended the speech rights of the Ku Klux Klan because they understood that the speech protections of the First Amendment are either universal or everyone’s speech can be challenged, on the grounds that it is too radical, or too dangerous to spread. Any corporate body tasked with censoring fascism or white supremacy may in time be asked to censor communism and subversive ideas on the left.
Leftists are not immune to censorship. Decisions made by private corporate bodies will cut both ways—we have already seen evidence of this. The World Socialist Web Site, Truthdig, Alternet and other left-wing publications outside the mainstream have already reported heavy decreases in traffic in the wake of new Facebook rules to fight fake news. International Russian outlets like RT are under heavy scrutiny as a consequence of the Mueller fiasco, while Saudi princes can invest in Twitter, Netflix and other media which feign objectivity. An algorithm can entirely shape what one finds when googling any topic in search of objective common knowledge, or when checking out what has been privately curated to trend on YouTube and Facebook. Suffice it to say, thumbs are on the scale, and apply more pressure with each new shooting or electoral mishap that brings about new calls for Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon to take on the role of unelected Prosperos of the information storm.
For recent examples of how information is interpreted, CNN fired contributor Marc Lamont-Hill for a perceived pro-Hamas dogwhistle in a speech I consider innocuous. Additionally, there are campaigns to remove primary congresswoman Ilhan Omar from the US Congress for statements about money and the pro-Israel lobby, interpreted by many as an anti-Semitic trope. The problem with allowing online outrage mobs to determine what is and is not genuine hate speech is that nobody can agree on the standard. I do not think Omar or Lamont-Hill are anti-Semitic. But what’s to prevent Facebook from deciding differently, and acting accordingly when dealing with the online statements of these figures?
What prevents left-wing critics of Israel from being lumped in with the alt right by corporate fiat? What prevents a future in which criticizing intervention in Syria is interpreted as support for foreign enemies like Bashar al-Assad, empowering the fringe voices of horseshoe theory, who tout the idea that a candidate like Tulsi Gabbard is right wing?
As the tides of the culture war shift, corporate bodies given the power to legislate speech without oversight will not give up any control they have been handed. This is not a power that should be granted to Google, Facebook and Twitter.
Rendering the public sphere of a democratic country into a private digital chatroom moderated by corporations is a tremendous distortion of the aims of liberal democracy. As someone skeptical of corporate power, I consider it one of the great thefts of our times, and one of the most blatant examples of unchecked privatization since the Reagan era. Only this time, far too many on the left, who wield tremendous cultural power, are taking the side of the corporations. There’s still time to shift course. While specific ideas about regulating big tech are still in their infancy, the current solutions are insufficient. The question of private and public spaces, in the commercial internet era, requires more thought. We cannot simply ban bad actors.