Counter to what some on the left and the right believe, censorship in America has not disappeared. It has been outsourced.
The Post Office no longer screens our mail for obscene material, and the local librarian is unlikely to ban books. But a system of private corporations controls what Americans can read and see. This system is less obedient to small-town values and religiosity than it is to the Chinese Communist Party and the woke ascendancy.
Not so long ago, only governments were powerful enough to engage in censorship. The rise of the tech giants has changed that.
Google, Facebook and Twitter work hard to maximize their control over the flow of information. Then they turn around and decide what information their users can see.
Last week, Twitter blocked links to The Post’s reporting on Hunter Biden. It suspended the accounts of the White House press secretary, House Republicans and the Trump campaign for sharing the story. Facebook also restricted the story, citing “our standard process to reduce the spread of misinformation.”
The people who staff and manage tech companies are overwhelmingly adherents of a single political creed. They label the views of their opponents as bigotry or “misinformation.”
Twitter also recently suspended the account of White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Scott Atlas. YouTube, which is owned by Google, has a policy of deleting “anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations.” As Jacob Siegel noted in Tablet, at various times this category “would include wearing masks, travel bans and asserting that the virus is highly contagious” even though those recommendations have shifted over the past few months.
YouTube’s policy of deferring to the World Health Organization may sound innocuous, but it is not. That ostensibly neutral body is in fact controlled by the Chinese state. As Foreign Policy reported, “Beijing succeeded from the start [of the pandemic] in steering the World Health Organization (WHO), which both receives funding from China and is dependent on the regime of the Communist Party.” Privatizing censorship is bad enough. Offshoring it is even worse.
Say what you will about Anthony Comstock, the postal inspector whose name became synonymous with censorship in the early 20th century; he inspected Americans’ mail for obscenity. Call him a prude, a snoop, a petty moralist. Still, he is superior to Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey in one respect: As an agent of the US government, he remained accountable to the people he was censoring. Their representatives could revoke his authority.
Contrast the “moderation policies” of Twitter and Facebook. These rules can’t be appealed at the ballot box. The tech giants are cloaked from public view and resistant to political scrutiny. Because they aren’t directly controlled by the American people, they are open to indirect control by foreign regimes. On this score, the new censorship is worse than the old.
How can we fight the new censorship? Through more vigorous use of the state. A possible first step is weakening Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which insulates social-media companies from the liabilities of a publisher like The Post. Robby Soave of Reason, a journalist I admire, has written that “the obvious result of removing tech platforms’ liability protection would be even more aggressive” censorship.
Even if that proves true, weakening Section 230 could decrease the power of the new censors. Twitter and Facebook would face higher operating costs, thanks to the need for more intense moderation. Threatened with lawsuits, they would face higher legal fees.
As they engaged in more flagrant censorship, they would likely lose users and public legitimacy. Their brands would be damaged, their bottoms lines compromised. Quite possibly, social media would lose reach and importance, just as blogging has done.
At any rate, this is the outcome we should seek, whether through Section 230 reform or some other means. Weakening social-media companies would be easier than compelling them to act neutrally.
And it would have broader benefits. Twitter and Facebook have enabled and profited from cancel culture. And these cash-flush firms have taken eyes and ad revenue from more traditional media organizations, which engage in actual newsgathering. They have brought more misery into my life, and the lives of those I know, than plastic straws, soda and cigarettes combined.
If they suffered from zealous public interference, I would not shed a tear.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things. Twitter: @MatthewSchmitz
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