by Chauncey Tinker – 20 Jan 2018
Freedom of speech is under increasing direct attack from governments and independently from social media companies on the internet. Governments are also increasingly leaning on social media companies to censor their users’ online utterances.
For example in Germany new rules came into force at the start of this year that stipulate fines of up to €50 million for companies that do not remove “hate speech” within 24 hours of a complaint being received. From TechCrunch:
Germany’s social media hate speech law is now in effect
Note that the above article states that the usage bar will be 2 million registered users – i.e. apparently websites with less than that number of users will not be subject to the new law.
This trend is not limited to Germany either, the UK govt. is also threatening to put pressure on social media companies by increasing taxes on those who don’t censor “extremist” opinions. As I have mentioned many times before, the current UK Prime Minister’s ideas about what constitutes “extremism” should send shivers down the spine of anyone who believes in any meaningful degree of freedom of speech. From the Times (premium):
Facebook, Google and WhatsApp among tech titans told to join fight against terror or face tax blitz
Don’t be fooled by the wording of that above article’s headline – if you read the article you will see the phrase “stamping out extremism online” is used, and the current Orwellian UK government’s definition of extremism goes far beyond terrorism as I revealed here:
Extremist Banning and Disruption Orders
(Note that the proposal described in the above article explicitly mentioned mere non-violent hostility to the Islamic religion as an example of an “extremist” view, and prison sentences were proposed for those who didn’t comply with the orders).
There is no objective standard by which what constitutes “hate speech” and “extremism” can be measured, and giving mere employees of social media companies the job of policing thought is simply inviting all kinds of problems.
At first I was quite skeptical that governments would be able to have much impact by such means and I thought this sort of indirect censorship would be impossible to enforce. I still think it will be easy to circumnavigate such censorship, for example by using different social media websites, especially websites not based in the same country as the user.
However the problem is that today the top few companies – Facebook, Twitter, and Google (which owns Youtube), have a near monopoly of the social media space. Political commentators who want to reach a significant audience are pretty much forced to use these established platforms. There is a great deal of inertia – users are reluctant to move to new social media platforms that promise to allow greater freedom of expression simply because most of the herd is still remaining on the established platforms.
Of course Google also is by far the most used search engine as well. The recent controversy surrounding James Damore’s sacking from the company revealed the extent to which it is dominated by so-called “social justice” thinking. The UK government is encouraging this powerful company to do what it probably would like to do anyway – to down-rank “wrong-think” websites in search results (or exclude them altogether).
European governments are effectively promoting these private companies to the role of the Internet’s thought police, effectively an arm of the state, but one without any form of oversight. Nobody can stop these companies exceeding even what our Orwellian governments want them to censor.
More worryingly still, the established internet companies are all run by immature people who seem to share many of the same deranged views that have at least until recently been completely dominating the political arena. Zuckerberg for example is quite a young man (only 33), and quite a naive one in many things. The fact that he has built this giant internet platform does not alter that fact – he is not the fount of all wisdom, and neither are our governments, far from it. Then of course there is also the problem that there may be financial interests involved in the promotion of particular political opinions, so by encouraging these companies to censor opinions the problem of crony capitalism may become ever more entrenched.
Also it has been dawning on me that it is not necessary to completely silence certain views in order to significantly distort the public discourse, it is only necessary to suppress those views to a large degree. If good arguments against the status quo are not heard by the majority of voters, then it is much less likely that political parties who’s views lie outside the current prevalent attitudes will be elected. Even if alternative platforms such as gab.ai exist and remain outside state control, their existence will not have any significant impact on the public discourse as long as their number of users remains relatively low.
I have therefore changed my views on further reflection, and I have now come to the conclusion that what we might call soft censorship practiced by these established social media companies, egged on and coerced by the government, is in fact extremely dangerous for the democratic process. The sheer number of people using these platforms regularly means the conversations taking place on them can have a significant impact on public opinion.
One of the most disturbing revelations that came out of the recent Project Veritas undercover report was that apparently social media companies are working on so called “artificial intelligence” computer programs to automatically censor their users’ content. From Project Veritas:
UNDERCOVER VIDEO: Twitter Engineers To “Ban a Way of Talking” Through “Shadow Banning,” Algorithms to Censor Opposing Political Opinions
As one commenter pointed out under a news article, Google translate can’t even translate from one language to another very well yet. Have you ever tried talking to an automated telephone line, or giving voice commands to your smartphone? Expecting artificial intelligence to know which political opinions should be censored is simply absurd, surely we do not want to submit to censorship by machines??? Some of the dystopian futures envisaged in sci-fi movies may be closer than we think..
There have been many claims that the Russians have been influencing recent elections in the West, and no doubt they have had some influence. These claims are being used as an excuse for censorship on social media. However the above mentioned Project Veritas report reveals chronic anti-Trump and anti-Republican bias and censorship at Twitter. The James Damore allegations also include a claim that Google kept blacklists of conservative employees:
Google managers kept blacklists of conservative employees and one manager considered holding ‘trials,’ a new lawsuit alleges
Recently the new ForBritain party had their Facebook page disabled, and one of our contributors has also been shadow-banned on Facebook.
It seems then that there may be a very large and significant force at work influencing our elections – the social media companies themselves. Don’t let’s forget the above mentioned companies – Google, Facebook and Twitter are all in the top 12 ranked most visited websites in the world, they have a lot of power to influence.
It is possible that the free market may solve the problem in time, at least one new social media website gab.ai has emerged where the owners are strongly resistant to state interference. However due largely to the inertia I mentioned above, it may take quite some time before people start to move to such new platforms in significant numbers.
It has been interesting to see even some people who call themselves libertarians and advocates for small government calling for some sort of legislation to force the social media companies to allow free expression, some even arguing that “it’s a public utility” and so forth. Such a measure might work in the US I suppose where the importance of the freedom of speech is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Are these companies simply too big? Others have even suggested that the social media companies should be broken up into smaller companies by the US government.
My own views on these questions haven’t completely crystallized yet, but I am inclined towards allowing the free market to sort the problem out – something we can and should encourage by publicizing sites like gab.ai that promise to resist government censorship.
In Europe governments are very much a part of the problem in any case, as discussed above. In Europe it will be necessary to re-establish the principle of freedom of expression across the board, something we must campaign for as a matter of urgency. We need something like a First Amendment protection in the UK.
There is nothing inevitable about the Orwellian future which our politicians and established social media companies have in store for us. One way we can fight back is simply by voicing our disapproval as loudly as possible and exposing the censorship that is taking place. Another way we can fight back is to encourage more people to migrate to alternative sites that promise not to censor mere opinions, or at least that are not yet on our government’s radar.
Let’s remember that half of the politically motivated section of the UK electorate voted for Brexit, and similarly Donald Trump won an election in the US. Once the people who voted for a change start to understand properly how much these social media companies are distorting the public discourse, they will start demanding an end to the censorship or voting with their feet and moving to other platforms. That is a very large number of customers for the social media companies to potentially lose.
Social media is a new phenomenon unlike anything that came before it, but predictably the establishment want it to behave like the old news media that they are familiar with and could themselves control to some degree. It will not ever be possible for social media companies to completely control what is posted on their platforms simply because of the sheer vast number of individual users. Nobody should be expecting them to censor opinions like this, least of all our already over-powerful governments, and we are utter fools if we allow them to get away with it.
In the next post I will take a closer look at one particularly pernicious form of censorship apparently being practiced by social media – shadow banning.
May’s Manifesto Pledge To Make The Internet A Safe Space
Forget about Thought Police, Fake News BBC becomes Internet Police
Wired Notes Silicon Valley Companies Are Starting to Doubt Concept of Free Speech
Censorship moves egged on by the Guardian and the Independent:
Move fast, Zuckerberg, or hate will kill Facebook
Facebook to prioritize ‘high quality’, trustworthy news, Zuckerberg says
How do you police the entire internet?
Social media companies need to do more to police harmful content on their platforms
What do you think? Please leave a comment below.