Stand Down @jack: Why the first change needs to be applied to social media
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, testifies remotely during a Senate Justice Committee hearing titled “Breaking the News: Censorship, Oppression, and the 2020 Election” on Capitol Hill November 17, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Hannah McKay-Pool / Getty Images)
The interaction between the First Amendment and companies like Twitter, Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook is the greatest challenge to freedom of expression in our lives. Pretending a company with the reach to influence elections is just another place to sell things by pretending that the role of debate in a free society is out of date.
From the day the founders wrote the 1A, until recently there was no entity that could censor on the big tech scale except government. It was difficult for a company, no matter a man, to silence an idea or spread a false story in America, no matter the world. That was Bond villain stuff.
The arrival of global technology controlled by mega-corporations like Twitter brought control language capability first, and soon afterwards readiness. The rules are their rules, and we also see the permanent ban on a president, which some 70 million Americans voted for from tweeting to his 88 million followers (ironically, the courts had previously claimed that it was unconstitutional for the president to block those who wanted to follow him). Meanwhile, the same censors allowed the Iranian and Chinese governments (along with the president’s critics) to speak freely. For these companies, violence in one form is a threat to democracy, while violence in another, similar form is assessed under a different colored flag.
In 2020, a new global media tactic also hit the market: sending a story to mind to influence an election. The contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, which strongly suggests illegal conduct on his part and unethical conduct on the part of his father, the president, has been deliberately and effectively kept away from a majority of voters. It was no longer for a voter to agree or disagree; it was knowing and judging oneself, or remaining ignorant and choosing anyway.
Try an experiment. Google “Peter Van Buren” with the quotes. Most of you will see on the first page the results articles I wrote for points of sale like four years ago The nation and salon. Almost none of you will see the scores of columns I wrote for The American Conservative in the past four years. Google buries them.
The ability of a handful of people who no one voted for to control the bulk of public discourse has never been so clear. It’s an amazing centralization of power. It is this force that negates the “start your own web forum” argument. Somebody did – and then Amazon backed up Server support and Apple and Google have blocked their app.
The same thing happened with the Daily Stormer, which was taken offline and deplatformed by Cloudflare through the coordinated efforts of tech companies and 8Chan. The Amazon partner GoDaddy has deplatformed the world’s largest weapons forum AR15. Tech giants have also killed local newspapers by devouring advertising revenue. These companies are not “a small part of the larger public conversation,” according to @jack.
The tech companies’ logic to destroy the conservative social media forum Parler has been particularly nasty – either censor you like us (“moderation”) or we shut you down. Parler, allowing ideas and people banned by others, has led to his downfall. Amazon et al. Used their power to censor another company. The tech companies also claimed that although Section 230 says we are not publishers, we are only providing the platform. If Parler did not exercise editorial control to the satisfaction of big technology, it was finalized. Even if Parler goes back online, it will only be for the pleasure of the mighty.
This new reality needs to be the starting point, not the end point, of discussions about the First Change and global media. Facebook et al. Have evolved into something new that can go beyond company boundaries, beyond the idea of a company that only sells soap or cereal, beyond the vision of the founders when they wrote the 1A. It’s hard to imagine Thomas Jefferson advocating a college dropout who will dictate what the president can say to millions of Americans. The magical play on words – it’s a company, so it doesn’t matter – is no longer enough to save us from drowning.
Tech companies are currently working in informal consultation with one another, taking turns being the first to forbid something so the others can follow suit. The next step is when a decision from one company is immediately transferred to the others and then to their contractors and suppliers to keep business going. AirBnB’s decision to ban users because of their political stance could be cross-platform so a person can’t fly, use a credit card, etc., essentially making them a non-person who isn’t able to get through one Walk out to take part in the company. And why not fully automate the task and destroy people who use a particular hashtag or like an offensive tweet? Maybe start a youth organization called Twitter Youth to watch the media around the clock and report dangerous ideas? A nation of high school hall monitors.
See links to surveillance technology that we idolize for helping arrest the “right” people. So with the Capitol riots, we’re fetishizing how cell phone data was used to place people on the ground, coupled with facial recognition against images taken from social media. Throw in calls from the media to have people drop friends and neighbors in the FBI, along with amateur efforts on Twitter and even Bumble to “out” the participants. The goal was to get people to jail whenever possible, but most loyalists seemed equally pleased if they could get someone to lose their job. Tech makes these tools readily available to the users who approve of it, knowing exactly how to use them. Orwellian? Orwell was an amateur.
There are legal arguments to extend the limited 1A protection to social media. Section 230 could be changed. Given that Democrats benefit disproportionately from corporate and government censorship, no legislative solution seems likely. Such people care far more about the rights of some citizens (trans people seem popular today; they used to be disabled people) than the most basic right for all people.
They rely on the fact that it is professional suicide today to defend all speech in principle. In America divided, it’s easy to say that the fight against fascism (racism, misogyny, white supremacy, whatever) overrides the old norms. And they think they can control the beast.
But imagine if someone’s views that might match @jack and Zuck’s today change over time. Imagine Zuck found religion and used all his resources to ban legal abortion. Imagine a technology shift that would allow another business run by someone who thinks like the MyPillow guy to replace Google by dictating what you can read. A former ACLU director stated, “Language restrictions are like poison gas. They seem like a great weapon when you have your target in mind. But then the wind turns. “
The 2020 election, when they hid the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop from the voters, and the aftermath when it banned the presidents and other conservative voices, was the growing-up moment, the proof of concept for media giants that they could work behind the illusion of democracy.
Hope rests with the Supreme Court expanding the first social media change, as it did when the 1A expanded to all levels of government, right down to the hometown mayor. The Court has long recognized the flexibility of 1A in general and has over the years expanded it to include “acts of speech” as diverse as nudity and advertising. However, don’t expect much to change anytime soon. Groundbreaking language choices, like other civil rights, are more evolutionary and in line with social changes than revolutionary.
It is sad that many of the same people who quoted the “First They Came Because …” poem about Trump’s Muslim ban are now encouraging the censorship of conservative voices on social media. The fun part is that both Trump and Twitter are claiming what they did to keep people safe. One day we’ll all wake up to find that it doesn’t matter who is doing the censorship, the government or Amazon. It’s all just censorship.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We meant well: How I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, Hoopers War: A World War II novel in Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A 99 percent story.