The Left-Wing Case Against Censorship of Social Media

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:

  1. The decision to deplatform is controlled by unaccountable private entities.
  2. Deplatforming creates multiple public spheres, which do not intersect, thus dividing the national discourse and creating safe spaces for bigotry.
  3. 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.

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14 comments

  1. Trans lesbian who got a hateful conduct ban from twitter in the midst of a discussion on GSAs (which, data suggests, cause extreme bullying survivors to experience MORE suicidality) for saying she’d “prefer policy that causes fewer queers to die…”

    Can confirm.

  2. The author needs to be reminded that online discourse has always been on privately run servers. Facebook and Twitter didn’t do anything nefarious to become the monopolies of online discourse they are today – people chose them on their own. The trouble is not that online discussion fora are private, but that government functionaries be it the President or various departments and other politicians and bureaucrats are using privately hosted and proprietary platforms for their official communication. And it’s not for lack of alternatives – Mastodon is a beautiful and well adopted federated open source alternative to Twitter – any number of servers can be set up to communicate with one another, or remain private, so that no single entity gets to control the entire network. Similarly there are other open source social media platforms. The US government should switch to using these, the bandwagon effect will ensure wider adoption of such platforms for people wanting to follow their updates. If the popular politicians and journalists leave Twitter for Mastodon, their fans will follow. Let Twitter and Facebook revert to what they started out as – vapid, ephemeral cat picture and trivia distribution networks, there is no need for heavy handed government intervention that will set a future precedent for interference regardless of who’s in power at that point.
    It makes sense from a security and long term data protection viewpoint as well to stick to open platforms – no coincidence that Russia and China run all their government systems on their own separately built Linux distributions because Windows can easily be backdoored by the 3 letter agencies.

  3. @Alexander Blum

    ” I do not think Omar or Lamont-Hill are anti-Semitic.”

    Given their recent behavior, I think you’re going to have to give us a little more than “I do not think…”.

    Why don’t you think?

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  4. Very important article for our time.

    The 1st amendment is under attack by corporations with television and the internet monopolies the tip of the spear. Monopolies always act in self interest and divide and conquer are its ideology. The toadies of the world unable to think for themselves cheering their side along. But what is their side? According to the monopolies it’s the unconscious belief system that can be tweaked into polarization measured by clicks or views and convertible to $. Twitter can do this in 280 characters but stats show us the average tweet takes just 33 chars.

    The public discourse revolves around the polarization of who is benefiting from the laws and huge tax and borrowing haul. Take a look and you will see the beneficiaries are the top of the pyramid of the united fronts devoid of moral impulses. Speech policing is just an escalation polarizing you into the pyramid scheme. If you don’t support free speech for everyone you do not support free speech.

    Imagine at a political rally for candidates where everyone carried a sign that said what they are for and not meaningless slogans, the ideological candidate name or what they are against. Then measure that against the pyramids of power

  5. I’m surprised by the line “empowering the fringe voices of horseshoe theory”. Is the recognition that extremes share common characteristics and sometimes even work together a remotely fanciful notion? If there’s a problem with this ‘horseshoe’ model it is that it’s still too basic. Politics is more complex than one a bent line.

    Having said that, you don’t need a complex model to understand that Senator Gabbard is not ‘so left she has become right’ but rather is simply a reasonably moderate person who sometimes veers right and other times veers left. I’d also argue it’s difficult to classify isolated individuals, who always form varied opinions for a range of personal, often emotional reasons. It’s only once you get the averaging effect of group identity that labels become more useful.

  6. Agreed mostly we need to set a high bar for censoring, but don’t really agree w/ this line: “CNN fired contributor Marc Lamont-Hill for a perceived pro-Hamas dogwhistle in a speech I consider innocuous.” I see his “river to the sea” language = get rid of Jews in Israel, and beyond the pale and not “innocuous.” It really depends on the bar for free speech. There will always be consequences.

    https://www.philly.com/opinion/commentary/marc-lamont-hill-cnn-temple-israel-comments-20181204.html

    1. Censorship of things critical of Israel as anti-semitic are common place. In Britain we have had endless criticism of the labour party as being anti-semitic with the focus being in adopting a definition of anti-semitism which includes criticising Israel as being racist as anti-semitic. At one point the labour leader was criticsed as being anti-semitic for having a meal with left wing jewish activisit on teh basis that these were jews who were not pro-Israel.

      What is special about Israel that criticsing it is considered racist? Is the opinion that a state that accepted all those born within the territory it controls as citizens anti-semitic? Is a consideration that the only alternative to a combined non-religuously defined state would be to allow those not Israeli citizens within the area controlled by Israel to form their own state be consider anti-semitic? If I say thatthe US is a racist state is that racist and should that statement result in my censorship?

      For the record I don’t think the US is a racist state and having spent a lot of time in Israel I think it is quite clearly racist but that many of its citizens are not, and most of those that are have reasons based on very understandable fears for being racist. I have no personal knowledge of the labour party and how it treats its jewish members. What I do know is that I react negatively to constant calls to act against anti-semites and give those accused a substantial benefit of the doubt because the accusation is so frequently used to censor legitimate opinion which not at all racist.

      I don’t know Marc Lamont-Hill at all but is the desire for a Palestinian state between the Jordan and the mediterranean intrinsically racist? If so why? If it is racist why is the state of Israel between the same boundaries not racist? Why is the prevention by Israel of teh establishment of a Palestinian state not racist?

      The accusation of anti-semitism would carry a lot more weight if it was reserved for racism against Jews.

  7. For a mind boggling example of left-wing anti free speech activism, claiming that saying women in burkas look like letterboxes is a short step from Christchurch, check out Gary Younge’s latest piece in the Guardian.

    1. Gary Younge’s column said no such thing:

      “But we won’t borrow that language, not only because it is patronising and racist, holding one group of people collectively responsible for the actions of just a few on the basis of their shared identity. We won’t borrow it because we know it doesn’t work.”

      What do you find objectionable about the language of the actual column? What it looks like to me is, when someone on the left calls for left-wing speech to combat right-wing speech, Rod McLaughlin lambastes it as ” a mind boggling example of left-wing anti free speech activism”. Evidence, perhaps, that those whining about the sanctity of free speech only care about their own speech after all.

      As for this Areo essay, the argument is short-sighted. The Left has no illusions about Facebook et al. They are proven to have no compunctions about censoring across the spectrum as they see expedient. But if the digital behemoths can be turned against right-wing extremism in the short term, then the “enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy” while we move toward a digital commons. Protecting fascist speech will only contribute to the erosion of liberal and socialist speech, not the opposite.

      1. “holding one group of people collectively responsible for the actions of just a few on the basis of their shared identity”

        “All right wingers are responsible for the actions of a stone cold psychopath”

        “All men are rapists”

        That’s the problem, leftists don’t see any irony here. Free speech for me but not for thee.

        1. So long as you just label it ‘structural’ you can claim rights based liberal democracies are a ‘white surpremacy’ or a ‘patriarchy’ whilst denying your labelling entire groups of people racist or misogynist. The racism and misogyny ceases being about individual moral agency and identifiable actions, it ends up being everywhere and nowhere.

      2. If all Younge ever argued for was for speech to combat speech you’d have a point. But anyone’s who’s read his columns knows that isn’t the case.

        Also, there’s a perverse irony regarding collective blame, given he along with numerous other Guardian columnists has been happy to use ‘white’ as a perjorative and embrace the critical race theory definition of ‘white supremacy’ which scoffs at the notion of individual moral agency.
        If you what to read something far more salient I’d suggest Kenan Malik’s piece pointing out that the left’s embrace of identity politics has emboldened the right to redefine their ethno nationalist racism as simply another form of identity politics.
        The likes of Younge have a lot to answer for the extent of the moral vacuity on the so much of the left.

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