Big Tech’s End-Run Around the First Amendment
Big Tech platforms are the public squares of our time. Anyone who says free speech there doesn't matter is lying to himself.
Twitter and Facebook are the censors the Founders feared when they wrote the First Amendment. None of those men could have envisioned a day when global tech corporations would overshadow the power of governments to control information. But that day is here, and @jack and his colleagues are trying to steal an election for Joe Biden in real time.
The social media giants tried to disappear a story from the New York Post claiming Hunter Biden sold access to his father to a Ukrainian company. I’m afraid to include a link to the story, for fear that this article too will be made to disappear. See, you can’t tweet a link to the Post‘s story or send it as a direct message on Twitter and you can’t post it on Facebook without some sort of red flag.
If you try and you’re an unimportant person, your message will just be blocked. If you are important, like the White House press secretary, @TeamTrump, or a conservative journalist trying to report out the fuller story, your account will be locked. The NY Post, one of the largest mass-circulation dailies, can’t RT its own article on Twitter. Orwell anticipated some of this, creating the term “unperson” for someone erased from society. But he, too, did not anticipate the power of the electronic media companies or he would have likely also coined the term “unthought.”
The goal of Twitter and Facebook is unthought, to make the NY Post story go away to the extent possible, and to delegitimize it as much as possible in those spaces the giants do not yet control, all because it will hurt Biden’s chances in the election. Free speech is to them a liability to democracy. This is sadly consistent with another blow to democracy, the media’s abandonment of any commitment to objectivity in favor of ideological activism. This election, there is a Right Candidate and an Evil Candidate and it is the media’s job to use the tools of censorship, propaganda, and now unthought to direct your vote accordingly.
We have no protection. For something like this to be unconstitutional or illegal, the denial has to come from the government. Facebook and others can deny speech rights anytime they want. We now know the argument that only the government is covered by the 1A has reached its limit. Technology and market dominance give great power with no responsibility to a handful of global companies even as the law hides behind the simplicity of the 18th century. That way of thinking requires you to believe that Facebook, et al., would never act as a proxy, barring viewpoints on behalf of a politician who would not be allowed to do it himself.
Don’t act surprised. While the NY Post story being disappeared caught the public’s eye, this has been going on for a long time.
After hazy accusations that Russians tried to influence the 2016 presidential election, Twitter and Facebook banned advertising by RT and Sputnik. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) followed by demanding social media censor even more aggressively on the government’s behalf for the “survival of our democracy.” Following racial violence in Charlottesville, Google, GoDaddy, and Cloudflare collectively ended their relationships with the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, “effectively booting it off the Internet.” Google noted that, “while some free speech advocates were troubled by the idea that ‘a voice’ could be silenced, others were encouraged by the united front the tech firms put up.”
Google blocks users from their own documents on Google Drive if the service feels the documents are abusive. Twitter suspends those who promote what it defines as violence, shadow bans others to limit the size of their audience, and tweaks its trending topics to push certain political ideas and downplay others. It purges users and bans “hateful symbols.” There are near-daily demands by increasingly organized groups to censor specific users, with Trump at the top of that list. Users can snitch out other users so that Twitter can evaluate whether they should be suspended. The motivation is always the same: to limit the ideas people can choose to be exposed to in favor of others.
Google has basically added 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 it dismissively calls 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,” protecting us from harmful content and, by extension, dangerous behavior, like electing the wrong president again.
Google sees itself at the nexus of history, 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 is, for the first time in human history, in a position to do something about it. After all, via 90 percent market dominance, they “now control the majority of online conversations,” so the Internet is whatever they say it is.
We are approaching a time when the freedom to speak will no longer exist independent of the content of speech. What you’re allowed to say could depend on media’s opinion of how it will affect others, in this case, candidate Joe Biden. Maybe you like Joe, but do I really have to include here “but what about the next time they use this power, maybe against something you believe in?”
For those still muttering “it can’t happen here,” look how American tech companies are already employing their tools to serve the China market’s social control needs. Companies exist to make money. You can’t count on them past that. Handing over free speech rights to an entity whose core purpose has nothing to do with free speech means it will inevitably quash ideas when they conflict with profits. It just happens to be going your way right now and you don’t live in China.
Those who celebrate how @jack and Zuck can censor at will seem to believe they will always yield power in the way “we” want them to. And trading away a little free speech, especially that of an unfashionable tabloid like the NY Post seems reasonable compared to another four years of Trump. It makes sense to unabashedly mainstream unthought and censorship Because Trump. Never before have such a large number of Americans feared a politician more. Trump isn’t just against what you are for, he is someone literally out to kill you, via COVID, via some war—your life is in danger. He is not just bad, he is a pure strain of evil without goodness, like a pedophile.
Google first introduced censorship in the most well-intentioned way: to stop child predators. The Internet giant tweaked its search results to block sites it believed linked to child porn. It went on to do the same for terrorist sites, and sites that encouraged suicide. But Google can skew search results any way it wants. It knows that the higher an item appears on a list of search results, the more users will click on it. Placing links for one candidate above another in a rigged test search increased the undecided voters who chose that candidate by 12 percent. Burying an idea can have a similar effect; 21st century free speech is as much about finding an audience as it is about finding a place to speak. There will soon be no need to lock up dissident thinkers in some old-timey prison; impose new Terms of Service and they are effectively dead. As are their ideas.
The argument that Twitter, Facebook, and Google are private companies, that no one forces you to use their services, and in fact you are free to switch to MySpace, is an out-of-date attempt to justify end-runs around the First Amendment. Platforms like Twitter are the public squares of the 21st century and must be governed by the same principles or the First Amendment is in practical terms irrelevant.
Pretending a corporation with the reach to influence elections is just another company that sells stuff is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. These corporations understand their power. They feel morally justified using it. They have exercised it for Joe Biden. When that happens, elections can be stolen in real time. Just watch.
Peter Van Buren is banned for life from Twitter. He is also a 24-year State Department veteran, and the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.