Big Tech censorship is driving polarization
This week, the Associated Press reported on nine exploitable vulnerabilities in electronic voting machines from leading vendor Dominion Voting Systems. One might recall Dominion as the company Donald Trump loyalists claimed influenced the election outcome in 2020. Indeed, MyPillow CEO and staunch Trump ally Mike Lindell was banned from Twitter in January 2021 for expressing as much.
I personally do not concur with Lindell’s claims that the election was stolen, and the Associated Press stressed that there was no evidence the vulnerabilities altered election results.
Yet this is just the most recent example of political speech initially being treated as a thoughtcrime, its proponent being banned from the platform he or she supposedly sullied by challenging the orthodoxy, only for legacy media, months later, to acquiesce quietly to the validity or partial validity of less extreme claims being made on the Right.
In August, YouTube banned Rand Paul, a medical doctor, for the gall of stating that “most of the masks you get over the counter don’t work.” The veracity of this claim has since been conceded, with airflow simulation studies finding that upward of 90% of particles make it through paper masks. In the run-up to the 2020 election, the New York Post, our nation’s oldest daily publication, was kicked off Twitter for weeks after it broke the news on Hunter Biden’s laptop, which contained compromising emails suggesting that he’d used his and his father’s political leverage for financial gain. Seventeen months later, the New York Times quietly acknowledged the truth of the Post’s original reporting.
Claims that behind “terms and conditions” and “user guidelines,” Silicon Valley tech powerhouses actively work to advance a leftist agenda were hyperbolized by Trump, but there is more than a little validity to them.
After Trump’s election in 2016, leaked video showed Google top executives calling an all-hands meeting, saying that society must “work so hard to ensure that … [the election result] is a blip, is a hiccup” in “history’s arc towards progress.” At Facebook, hidden camera recordings captured content moderator Lara Kontakos bragging that “if someone is wearing a MAGA hat, I am going to delete them for terrorism.” YouTube, for its part, routinely censors and/or demonetizes mainstream creators with libertarian or conservative viewpoints, such as PragerU, Dave Rubin, and Steven Crowder.
There’s more than just anecdotal evidence of this bias. Employees at Netflix (98%), Google (88%), Apple (84%), Facebook (77%), and a litany of other Big Tech sites gave the vast majority of their political campaign contributions to Democrats in the 2020 presidential election.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this widespread ideological conformity results in tangible differences in how conservative and liberal speech is regulated online. Richard Hanania conducted a study for Quillette in 2019 that found “of 22 prominent, politically active individuals who are known to have been suspended [on Twitter] since 2005 and who expressed a preference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, 21 supported Donald Trump.”
As a result of all this, fully 90% of conservatives aren’t confident that social media companies are fair and unbiased in content moderation, and many are flocking to alternatives such as Gab, Parler, or Truth Social. This is profoundly dangerous for our democracy. People already consume different news, engage with different communities, and are increasingly detached from one another’s baseline realities. Social media has served as a last bastion of cross-partisan discussion and debate. But if conservatives continue to be muzzled on Twitter and divorce themselves from the site en masse, we would be, even more than today, a society divided.
I don’t think the election was fraudulent. But if there ever were a stolen election, wouldn’t we want the losing side to be able to air their claims publicly in the marketplace for ideas? Even if we’re confident in our response to the pandemic, shouldn’t we let doctors-turned-politicians like Rand Paul make the argument that certain policies are counterproductive?
For our polity to survive, we must revert to the old ethos of combating bad ideas with good ones, harking back to the Jewish ACLU lawyers who fought for neo-Nazis’ right to protest. By suppressing and banning speech, you don’t get rid of it; you just force it elsewhere and divide civil society.
As the fate of Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition is uncertain, the site and others like it continue to engage in heavy-handed censorship of mainstream conservative speech that they’re ultimately forced to walk back, in the process alienating conservatives and risking further societal division. Elites in Silicon Valley must stop trying to play the role of arbiter of truth. They’re not very good at it.
Max Keating is a freelance columnist and graduate student at Georgetown University.