It seems that only after Twitter and Facebook suppressed the New York Post’s scoops on Hunter Biden are many Americans starting to see Big Tech’s bias and how it threatens free speech. They are learning anew how an individual or publisher who expresses a view that these companies dislike will be effectively silenced. And when Big Tech companies are the main outlets for news and commentary, it is possible for certain viewpoints (mostly conservative ones) altogether to be erased from the public consciousness.
It doesn’t help that as this scandal (both the censorship and the story of Hunter Biden’s corruption) broke, the New York Times Magazine published an 8700-word criticism of free speech and how censorship serves the common good. By the end of her essay, the writer Emily Bazelon concludes, “As we hurtle toward the November election with a president who has trapped the country in a web of lies, with the sole purpose, it seems, of remaining in office, it’s time to ask whether the American way of protecting free speech is actually keeping us free.” She believes that free speech fundamentalism has enabled dishonest demagogues and swindlers to misinform and divide Americans. Therefore, Americans should follow Europe’s example—in particular, France, the land of gilets jaunes riots and no-go zones—and censor harmful speech in order to keep the population “free” from hate and disinformation.
Many conservative writers and politicians have rebutted this argument, claiming that Bazelon has it exactly backwards: checks on free speech will force Americans to consume one-sided propaganda from established outlets, making them slaves to whatever narrative the dominant media promotes. Is it not better that Americans know whether one of the major party candidates has possibly compromised American security, used his office for financial gain, and repeatedly lied about all of it? And, for that matter, can Americans not be trusted to know the facts about COVID-19, another heavily censored topic? Those aren’t just votes in that case; those are lives.
That said, as important as this debate about what limits, if any, should be applied to public speech, it tends to overshadow another issue that plays an even greater role in Big Tech censorship: monopolies on content creation. At the heart of every argument on free speech, both limiting or liberating it, is winning in the marketplace of ideas.
The Left Is After Conservative Content Creators
In the age of podcasts, websites, and social media posts, conservatives have grown increasingly influential while progressives have fallen behind. This painful fact causes progressives to accuse conservatives of cheating somehow. This can seen both in Bazelon’s article in which she bitterly lists the amount of views or clicks a Breitbart article receives before it’s taken down.
The complaint about the popularity of conservative content also appears in a notorious article last year against free speech from the New York Times, “The Making of a Youtube Radical.” In this essay, Kevin Roose tells the story of Caleb Caine, a man who was “radicalized” after following so much conservative content on YouTube. Even though Roose shows obvious disdain for the views of anti-left figures like Stephen Molyneux and Jordan Peterson, what he hates even more is their popularity: “[progressive content creators] were dwarfed by creators on the right, who had developed an intuitive feel for the way YouTube’s platform worked and were better able to tap into an emerging wave of right-wing populism.” Conservative content-creators have learned how to better manage online media and thus are more popular than progressive content-creators who formerly dominated old media like television and newspapers.
Instead of learning from these successful content-creators, progressives will accuse the system of being rigged. They never seem to acknowledge that the most conservative podcasters seem to win fans because they create a better product, feature younger hosts who are open about their views, and deal with controversial issues in a common sense way. It’s noteworthy that there really isn’t any parallel in the progressive world. Who is the Ben Shapiro or Dan Bongino of the left? Who is their Donald Trump? Is it really the geriatric hosts of NPR and Joe Biden?
Big Tech Platform Make More Money By Obliging Left
It is understandable (though wrong) that progressives in media want to defeat their competition any way they can, but one might ask why Big Tech companies like Twitter and Facebook help them. True, they agree with progressives on politics and culture, but punishing popular content creators by censoring or demonetizing their content seems like it would hurt business.
This would be true if Facebook and Twitter didn’t enjoy a monopoly over social media platforms. Normally, they would seek to become popular by attracting popular content creators to their platform, and then use that popularity to attract advertisers who provide the revenue. The bigger the network is, the more valuable ads become.
However, because Facebook and Twitter are monopolies, they don’t need to worry about losing users because of disgruntled conservative content creators. Where else are they supposed to go? Are they willing to forgo the huge network of users and take a risk on a much smaller platform like Parler or Rumble? Most will not, however much they hate Big Tech.
On the other hand, Facebook and Twitter do need to worry about keeping their advertisers happy, and some of those advertisers include large newspapers like the New York Times (which spent $65 million on Facebook ads in the last year), political campaigns, or large companies that might have a stake in certain media narratives or political outcomes. So if leftist organizations that pay or lobby through Twitter are upset about the Hunter Biden story, it’s much easier for Twitter to lock down the New York Post’s account, erase the story, and upset a few conservatives than endure the financial and political repercussions of letting Donald Trump possibly win yet another term in office. Put simply, they have far more to lose with upsetting Democrats than upsetting Republicans.
Considering this current setup, conservatives who advocate for free speech first need to deal with the problem of Big Tech monopolies and content creators’ lack of leverage. Not only should an individual have some kind of recourse if their content is censored for political reasons, but no company should be so big that it can silence users in the first place.
Fortunately, there have been positive developments in both areas. First, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee just grilled Twitter and Facebook’s CEOs about their biased censorship, and Sen. Josh Hawley, a vocal opponent of Big Tech, has asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate Twitter and Facebook for violating campaign finance laws by providing many millions of dollars worth of donations in social media publicity. Additionally, the DOJ is suing Google for anticompetitive practices that allow it to enjoy over 70% of all online advertisement revenue. If successful, these moves will help in making the internet freer, fairer, and thereby better.
If they fall short of accomplishing anything, taking these actions will at least move reform efforts in the right direction. For Americans who worry about the future of free speech, they need to realize that this issue today is as much about clicks as it is about ideas.
Photo Credit: Big Dreams