Only 20% of the country are on Twitter, and yet it seems to have a disproportionate influence on so much of our public and political discourse. This is probably because the entire media and political class are on there, and often use the forum to debate and discuss their ideas. I say debate, but your typical Twitter argument usually ends with someone throwing out expletives with the caps lock on and comparing his opponent to Hitler.
But whether we like it or not, social media have become the de facto public square. And given that the major platforms are run by just a few corporations, big tech now has dominion over the acceptable limits of public conversation. The employees in big tech are overwhelmingly left-leaning and are disciples of a new identity-obsessed religion that has become know as the ‘woke’ movement, or the ideology of Critical Social Justice. This is why you’ll find your online search engines are manipulated so that you are nudged towards reading the “correct” opinions. It’s why social media platforms will push certain articles over others and why some online booksellers won’t allow you to search for certain titles. It’s like having Mary Whitehouse continually looking over your shoulder, prodding you in the ribs if you dare to read something that offends her sensibilities.
Big tech censorship is out of control. Remember when Twitter and Facebook banned the sitting president of the United States? Remember before the election, when Twitter decided to prevent its users from sharing a negative news story about Hunter Biden? They even suspended the account of the New York Post. This isn't just some blog - the New York Post was established in 1801 by that founding father and well-known rapper Alexander Hamilton. And by the way, that story about Hunter Biden turned out to be true, but of course partisan corporations in Silicon Valley thought they knew better. If this wasn’t election interference, it came dangerously close.
Now these platforms are regularly banning accounts – not for violating any rules, but because they don’t agree with what they’ve got to say. Gender-critical feminists are the latest group to be targeted by big tech. If you want to assert that there are two biological sexes, and that women’s rights are adversely affected when gender identity ideology is enacted in law, you probably won’t last long on Twitter.
And this week, a news aggregator called Politics for All, run by 19-year-old journalist Nick Moar, was kicked off the platform without any explanation. He hadn’t broken any rules, and when he asked what crime he committed he just got an automated response repeated their vague mantra about breaking terms and services. For those of you who’ve read Kafka’s The Trial, you’ll be familiar with this kind of procedure.
“But they’re private companies! They can ban whoever they like!” True, but if Facebook started banning people for being gay, wouldn’t we have something to say about that? And isn’t it slightly odd to hear people who claim to be left-wing cheering on multi-billion dollar corporations in their efforts to limit the scope of acceptable thought and speech? I doubt that Karl Marx would be on board with that.
Bear in mind that these are not elected representatives invested with the authority to act on behalf of the demos, but multi-billion dollar corporations who profit from selling our data to advertisers. Do we really want these avaricious, morally bereft billionaires acting as our parents? If we’re really seeking moral guidance, Silicon Valley seems an unlikely place to find it.
“If you don’t like it, why not build your own social media platform?” Easier said than done. Parler attempted to do just that, and then the big tech corporations ganged together to shut it down. I suppose we could try carrier pigeons, but I bet Mark Zuckerberg has got some winged monkeys he’s had genetically engineered to take care of that kind of thing.
The way in which the tech giants coordinated to prevent users from accessing Parler shows that they are willing to go to any lengths to ensure that their dominance of the market is absolute. They justified this intervention by claiming that some accounts on Parler were openly calling for violence, and that the company has failed to remove such content, but the same could be said for Twitter itself. At the time that they banned Donald Trump, there was a post on Twitter by the Supreme Leader of Iran calling for the wholesale eradication of Israel. Isn’t that a call for violence? Certainly doesn’t sound very friendly.
Those who claim that censorship can only be imposed by the state are making arguments that are over twenty years out of date. The reality of the digital age is that the main channels of public discourse are superintended by unaccountable and unelected billionaires who enjoy greater political clout and influence than any major nation state. And their terms and services are so nebulous as to be virtually meaningless. Of course, that’s the whole point. If they were specific about what was and wasn’t allowed, they wouldn’t be able to just ban anyone they liked and not give a reason.
Most publishers are responsible for the content that appears on their site. If a newspaper quotes something libellous, they can be sued. Not so Twitter, because it benefits from the protections afforded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was introduced in 1996 so that companies could moderate user posts without being legally defined as publishers. This was especially important when it came to online comment sections, where it would be unfair to hold news outlets culpable for illegal or libellous content uploaded by users.
But if they insist on behaving like publishers, why should they have these legal protections? That’s a discussion for another time perhaps. But for now, it’s clear that we need new companies to break this oligopoly. Not just for our sakes as users, but for the sake of the principal of free speech which is taking quite a hammering in these illiberal times.
So it’s great to see that this week popular comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan joined Gettr, a new rival to Twitter, and in the following days Gettr amassed a further million users. That’s quite an exodus. New rivals to Twitter have always been attacked and smeared by the mainstream media, who are largely in thrall to the same ideology shared by Silicon Valley. It works something like this. Whenever a new platform emerges, those people who have been banned by Twitter will join. It’s inevitable. And given that most of those banned are from the political right, the media is able to claim that these new platforms are “right-wing echo chambers”. And then left-wing people read this, and are nervous about joining. It’s a self-perpetuating problem.
But times have changed. Gettr might have been set up by a republican Trump supporter, but it welcomes voices from across the political spectrum and has specific terms of service so that no one will ever be banned without knowing why. Nor will they censor anyone’s opinion simply because the boss doesn’t agree. And because Twitter has turned against gender-critical feminists, who are almost universally left-wing, many of them are now joining Gettr, where they can have conversations about important issues without ideologues in Silicon Valley trying to shut them up.
So you can expect to see activist publications like the Guardian and the New Statesman claiming that Gettr is a ‘right-wing’ platform, but it just won’t wash anymore. Because it’s apparent to anyone that its users come from both the right and the left. As it should be. Maybe, finally, we can have a platform where all ideas can be shared and discussed, without the interference of middle-class kids in California who think they know better.