A friend recently sent me an article about the “de-platforming” of right-wing Internet provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and, according to the article, he’s now $2 million in debt after countless online platforms evicted him. Evidently, without access to Twitter, Patreon, GoFundMe, and so on, Yiannopoulos could not adequately promote himself or raise cash. And without his large online presence, his well-to-do benefactors seem unenthused.
My friend posed a question: “How do dissident thinkers protect their livelihoods in the age of digital de-platforming?”
I hesitate to call Yiannopoulos a “dissident thinker.” When I hear the term I tend to think of an emaciated Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn scribbling what would become his first book on a roll of toilet paper in a Soviet gulag. Not Milo Snuffaluffagus. He’s hardly dissident and not much of a thinker. Nonetheless, this is an important question.
“There’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the Internet. Good luck!” said then-president Bill Clinton in a speech in 2000. “That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” I have quoted that Jell-O line countless times. For years, I believed no one could control the Internet because it was too abstract to be controlled. The government could bulldoze a statue, blow up a building, seize private land via eminent domain, even shoot an enemy soldier. But the internet was bulletproof and accessible to all.
Then I began to see a number of conservative-leaning commentators getting suspended or banned from social media platforms—hence the phrase “de-platformed.” In November, Twitter banned conservative radio talk show host and veteran Jesse Kelley shortly after he wrote a piece critical of social media censorship. Can one not speak against de-platforming without getting de-platformed? Kelley’s piece focused on the provocateur Alex Jones who was banned by Facebook and YouTube, apparently in tandem. Jones insists that the banning increased his website’s traffic, but as the New York Times reported, in the weeks following Jones’ ban, his average viewing audience declined by nearly half.
Traffic is lifeblood for an Internet provocateur. Companies want to run ads on videos that go viral. Traffic drives small dollar donations and revenue from products sold online. Many activists and podcasters also raise money on fundraising sites such as Patreon—which has also banned several right-leaning personalities. In December, Patreon threw off anti-feminist commentator Carl Benjamin, otherwise known as “Sargon of Akkad,” for violating its rules on hate speech. His de-platforming has sparked the ire of online social commentators Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin, who are now openly discussing the development of an alternative platform “that will not be susceptible to arbitrary censorship.”
De-platforming can happen very suddenly. As to its efficacy, there is no debate: it is highly effective and likely to become even more so as we become more reliant on online-based services. We are already in a world where communications and transactions are done digitally; we are headed towards a future where property is increasingly digital and abstract. To quote Justin Timberlake’s character from the movie The Social Network: “We lived on farms, we lived in cities, now we live online.” Yet any online-based company—not just social media ones—can shut down or suspend a user at the drop of a hat. For example, for making comments about Islam that were deemed unacceptable, activist Laura Loomer has been banned from Uber and Lyft.
Clearly, the Internet can be controlled. And in the 21st century, that power to control is the power to turn anyone’s life upside-down. So what happened? How are powerful people controlling the Internet? How is all this Jell-O getting nailed to the wall?
The key is in that quote from The Social Network: “We lived on farms, we lived in cities, now we live online.” With each transition, society has become more concentrated and controlled. The agrarian economy was decentralized and difficult to control. The internet is centralized and easily controlled.
That raises another, related question: what if Richard Weaver was right about property? In Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver, the mid-20th-century conservative scholar, noted how, in America, private property has been a salvation for many dissident thinkers. One could always grow and hunt on one’s land, build a home, raise a family, activities that were kept private from the state. To Weaver, property meant land, and private property was sacrosanct. Now property may come to mean the Internet, and nothing is private on the Internet.
What we traditionally thought of as property was concrete and near to its owner, not easily taken. Today, our concept of property is abstract and far from the owner, easily taken. As we have seen, this leaves little refuge for the modern dissident thinker.
Weaver foresaw the threat posed by property growing ever more abstract:
For the abstract property of stocks and bonds, the legal ownership of enterprises never seen, actually destroy the connection between man and his substance without which metaphysical right becomes meaningless. Property in this sense becomes a fiction useful for exploitation and makes impossible the sanctification of work. The property which we defend as an anchorage keeps its identity with the individual.
“Finance capitalism” may seem like an unrelated subject, but Weaver found stocks and bonds problematic for the same reasons our online digital homes have become problematic. As property becomes more abstract, it grows more distant from its owner. Technocrats come to stand between the two and assert control. The corporate structure, with its increasing levels of bureaucracy, begins to mirror that of the state and even threatens to merge with the state. Today, it is private companies that flip the switch and take our digital property from us. But if a technocrat at Twitter can flip that switch, surely a technocrat in government can as well.
As we transition to such a managerial economy, what is our solution? As my friend initially asked: “How do dissident thinkers protect their livelihoods in the age of digital-de-platforming?”
Weaver posed his own solution: “the distributive ownership of small properties.” He explained in Ideas Have Consequences:
These take the form of independent farms, of local businesses, of homes owned by the occupants, where individual responsibility gives significance to prerogative over property. Such ownership provides a range of volition through which one can be a complete person….
Weaver was fond of local, family-owned shops but he always believed that the backbone of the economy should be agriculture. Many self-styled conservatives defend our modern economy, which runs on stocks, bonds, the Internet, digital media—free markets. But if we fear that our digital property may be seized at any moment, are those markets really free? Wouldn’t it make sense to own actual private property?
Can dissident thinkers build their own digital world? Some conservatives have created alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, and now Patreon. This is certainly important to expose more people to unpopular ideas but such alternatives won’t change the fact that our economy is becoming abstract and therefore easier to control. The truth may be that there is a conservative alternative to the Internet and it’s called “land.” That isn’t necessarily a happy conclusion. I am not a natural agrarian. I do not own land nor do I want to. As of this writing, I have a laptop and an iPhone. And you can follow me on Twitter @howtingmi. If my account is difficult to find, that’s probably because I’ve been de-platformed. It may happen to more of us before this is all over.
John M. Howting III is a writer from from Southeast Michigan. He’s published in First Things and The National Pulse. Follow him on Twitter @howtingmi.