The great irony—if not outright fraud—of the internet is that it is a digital highway without speed limits. That’s true, of course, until the summonses show up. Users then learn of restricted access and banned accounts. Some receive lifetime sanctions, others mere probation.
The digital highway actually has unseen speed traps that operate with all the subtlety of southern sheriffs. The revving up of search engines gets halted. The common courtesies of the road dispensed with. Fellow travelers come to complete stops.
Remember the old IBM operating system known as DOS? Today it stands for Denial of Service. Against now private citizen President Trump and his once treasured Twitter account. And former Congressman Ron Paul, recently locked out of Facebook. They are not the only political leaders to have had their communications on social media disabled. Many private citizens were surprised to discover their Facebook pages suspended for violating the social media giant’s very much unevenly applied and ill-defined “Community Standards.”
Conservative African-American commentator, Candace Owens, had her Facebook page temporarily blocked when she wrote that African-Americans have less to fear from white supremacy than “liberal supremacy,” which she firmly believes incentivizes fatherless families within the black community – along with all the ensuing social pathologies.
The romance of the interconnected wireless network is being hijacked by the suffocating web of intersectionality. Mobs gather fast online. Rigged algorithms sabotage free thought. The PC police have apparently learned how to code. And it has resulted in a systemic failure that is not merely a glitch. It’s the moral revulsion of anonymous trolls and smug, high-tech tycoons.
The geniuses who gave us these wondrous tools for the mind are revealing themselves to be private sector versions of government censors. Social media companies and internet platforms are like the tyrants of old—accountable to no one, omnipotently immune from everyone, and downright indignant toward even the mere mention of regulation.
Wasn’t the internet supposed to be a global public square—open to all without barriers to entry? A true liberals paradise: knowledge always at the ready, without limits, uncensored, available any time of day? An internet connection provided the ultimate soapbox.
Free speech never had a better friend.
Except that the internet was never really a public square in the traditional sense. For one thing, it was a private square without constitutional safeguards. Unlike an outdoor public park where a speaker addresses a spontaneously gathering crowd, holds their attention by shouting to be heard, the internet begins with browsers, followed by search engines, and then usernames and passwords. Silence is the dominant sensation; blue light is the prism through which we make artificial eye contact. The crowds are immense, but the freedom of assembly is distant and unfelt.
Internet users gather alone. A “Like” should never be confused with a roar.
It was always a soap box nestled inside Silicon Valley’s sandbox. Freedom of movement, and speech, was restricted. Algorithms targeted specific audiences. Surveillance was everywhere—what we search for, who is searching for us. People make a lot of stupid decisions on their Smart phones.
Driving a car on the open road is different from the digital highway, where destinations are more predetermined. The steering wheel is an online illusion. And virtue signaling is more important than merely obeying the street signs.
Speech is being regulated by Big Tech even though the websites, search engines and social media platforms are not being regulated by the government. The prior restraint is all privately performed. The internet has become less a repository of intellectual freedom than an actual net that traps.
For liberalism to flourish, open markets are as indispensable as open minds. But the internet is dominated by extraordinary concentrations of power—Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple. Look what happened to Parler, a conservative’s alternative to Twitter. Gang, monopolistic warfare seems to have put it out of business. These internet players mean business—and they are pretty mean about it. Valuable companies they may be, but liberal enterprises they are not. They play favorites. They have ideological preferences and political points of view. They communicate through machines, but the decisions they make are very much subject to human bias and error.
When you look past the youthful hoodie culture you see vindictive corporate fiefdoms that arbitrarily stifle free speech.
The FANG stocks have actual fangs.
This should come as no surprise. From mainstream to social media, the news we consume and the social engagements we make are increasingly being dictated by illiberal, anti-democratic purveyors of groupthink. A global pandemic, which converted our homes into self-contained isolation centers—for binge eating, sleeping, schooling, working and exercising—only magnified our dependence on social media and internet portals for touchless human contact and glimpses of the outside world. We have become prisoners of bandwidth and blinking screens. And what is perversely blinking back at us is not content neutral.
Just think back to this summer. The New York Times retroactively and aggressively distanced itself from an opinion piece it had published – a piece it had actively solicited from Senator Tom Cotton. He argued in favor of invoking the Insurrection Act to quell the violence that erupted from some of the Black Lives Matter protests. It was an opinion shared by a majority of Americans. Soon after publication, however, the Times completely disavowed the essay. The editors responsible for its publication were either forced out or were reassigned.
If the cause of Black Lives Matter is just—which I firmly believe it is—must its violent offshoots be either ignored or downplayed?
Apparently, a United States Senator’s opinion was unfit for the Opinion page—and the weight of our regressive social media agreed. Surely, calling for military assistance to put an end to all that arson, looting and violence could only spring from the mind of a racist. The Senator’s surname was further proof of his evil intent.
But why? If the cause of Black Lives Matter is just—which I firmly believe it is—must its violent offshoots be either ignored or downplayed? The Insurrection Act is best known for integrating southern schools and universities during the civil rights era. Local law enforcement was committed to maintaining segregation. Clearly, mobilizing the National Guard is not, per se, a racist endeavor.
The Times doesn’t seem to be all that troubled by the presence of 7,000 National Guardspersons, for the time being, occupying Washington, D.C. Surely the storming of the Capitol on January 6th while a Joint Session of Congress was in progress was horrific. But so, too, was the torching of police precincts and police cars, the ransacking of businesses and vandalism that occurred in the 220 locations were violence was reported over the summer.
This was a tale of two demonstrations. Both largely peaceful. Yet, having favorable opinions about one is morally defensible; the other is a woke war crime.
So far, over 200 people have been arrested in connection with the breaching of the Capitol. Thousands were at the National Mall on January 6th, exercising their First Amendment freedoms of assembly, association and speech. Questioning the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election does not make them all white supremacists, although some undoubtedly were.
Meanwhile, lawmakers who debated the tally of the Electoral College on that same day now find themselves with shelved book contracts, college degrees under threat of being rescinded, and, of course, social media accounts shut down. And what they were doing was protected under the Speech and Debate Clause of the Constitution. President Trump was nearly convicted by the Senate for inciting an insurrection, and yet he, too, has a First Amendment right to engage in political advocacy, even if his words are incendiary, emotional and spontaneous.
Except for the riot itself, everything else that took place on January 6 was constitutionally permissible, and a demonstration of our liberal values and democratic freedoms.
The cancel culture’s illiberal tendencies has graduated from the college campus and now pervades our politics, news sources and, of course, the gathering mobs of social media. Note how the Hunter Biden story was quashed on Twitter and belittled and ignored on all internet platforms. There may be nothing to that story, but how will we ever know? Did these high-tech companies do their own due diligence—conduct their own truth-seeking—before determining that they would simply not allow Biden’s son to doom his father’s march to the White House?
Seemingly all of corporate America has taken its cue and acted swiftly to pass its own verdict on wrong-thinking—especially within its own ranks.
Amazon recently removed a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas from its streaming service. So much for Black History Month. Apparently only one version of that history is acceptable. A documentary that featured actual interviews with an African-American who has served on the Highest Court of the land for 30 years was not something Amazon felt deserved a platform—nothing at all to learn from the man, or about the man. Why? Well, perhaps for the same reason that most people have never heard of Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele, two African-American conservative public intellectuals. They haven’t been cancelled, per se, because they have barely existed in the public sphere.
Amazon’s censorship is racism of a different sort: not the soft bigotry of low expectations but rather, ironically, the suppression of individual and cultural achievement. The views of all three of these men simply do not match the perpetual victimization of African-Americans that progressives wish for closed-minded people—white and black—to know.
Social media presents its own opportunities for self-righteous cancellation. Colleen Oefelein was recently fired as an agent with the Jennifer De Chara Literary Agency. Apparently, simply maintaining a profile on Parler and Gab ended her employment. She hadn’t posted anything that was objectionable.
Here is her employer’s released statement. One hesitates to believe that something like this could happen in a liberal society:
“The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency was distressed to discover this morning, January 25th, that one of our agents has been using the social media platforms Gab and Parler. We do not condone this activity, and we apologize to anyone who has been affected or offended by this. The Agency has in the past and will continue to ensure a voice of unity, equality, and one that is on the side of social justice. As of this morning, Colleen Oefelein is no longer an agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.”
Nowadays, one demonstrates a commitment to “social justice” by terminating the employment of different thinkers.
The actress Gina Carano wasn’t even notified by her employer, Disney, that she had been released from her contract on account of social media postings that expressed opinions that were no longer permissible in polite society—with politeness measured exclusively by intersectional taboos. She equated the intolerance shown toward conservatives with the persecution of Jews during Nazi Germany. She mocked the wearing of multiple masks during the pandemic. And she committed the unforgivable faux pas of not taking pronoun usage and gender identity seriously enough.
Disney’s overheated explanation for Carano’s abrupt firing mentioned that “her social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.”
Does that accurately reflect what she did? She didn’t denigrate Jews. She merely, awkwardly, invoked a tortured analogy. She’s a former mixed martial artist, for heaven’s sake! She’s not an English professor.
Liberal societies value their exposure to a mix of opinions so that arguments can be weighed and judgments made about ideas, policies and people. The First Amendment applies only to government actions that deprive citizens of their right to speak. Employment contracts in private industries are exempt from free speech protections. That was true for Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee, Colleen Oefelein’s Parler account, and Gina Carano’s Instagram postings.
As a nation we used to think of ourselves as extending the right of free inquiry beyond constitutional boundaries. We took pride in maintaining a permissively tolerant understanding of free speech… Those days are long gone.
None of them have the legal right to reclaim their jobs. And Justice Thomas can’t force Amazon to make the documentary about him available for streaming.
But as a nation we used to think of ourselves as extending the right of free inquiry beyond constitutional boundaries. We took pride in maintaining an indulgent understanding of free speech. We respected the points of view of others, even if it conflicted with our own. We didn’t reflexively, heartlessly banish them from civil society, deem them morally unfit to live and work among us. Blotting them out was un-American.
Those days are long gone. How many heated subjects are now disallowed at dinner table discussions around the country? Simply off-limits. Even talking about the weather carries risk. It might reveal too casual an attitude about climate change. How many are afraid to Like a post on Facebook for fear of alienating “Friends”?
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 was enacted, among other reasons, to facilitate the nascent internet industry to develop the information superhighway. The pioneers of the digital economy were incentivized to speed up the task by receiving immunity from civil liability. Why did Google and Facebook, which didn’t even exist at the time, deserve such protections? Well, they merely built and maintained the new highway—the gravel and guardrails that granted everyone access. They were neutral and agnostic when it came to content; indifferent to what content appeared on their platforms. Mark Zuckerberg proved this point by refusing to take down Holocaust denial Facebook pages.
But these internet portals are now multibillion dollar industries with creeping Fourth Estate powers. And they most certainly have more than a passing interest in what opinions are being exchanged. Reporting the truth is not one of their priorities. Zealously mining our personal data is, however. And they privilege some speakers over others. Favorable points of view mysteriously show up on everyone’s news feed; opinions out of favor will end up in places where search engines, apparently, abandon the search.
Especially since this past presidential election, we have come to learn that internet providers care very much about politics. Most people depend on the internet for their news and information, a cultural phenomenon that allows these entities to operate like free speech cartels. Access is denied to individuals and ideas deemed unworthy of this new means of communication. —
They editorialize as they digitize.
…in what twisted moral universe does Ayatollah Khamenei, who repeatedly denies the Holocaust, threatens Israel…deserve a Twitter platform while Trump does not?
Social media companies are not only in it for the money. By suspending and shutting down accounts and de-platforming certain websites, they are functioning like true censors—engaged in viewpoint discrimination and interfering with the public trust. Yes, they are private businesses, but they also happen to be in a business that provides essential infrastructure. And if it’s essential, then it becomes the public’s business, too. American corporate history recalls that Standard Oil, AT&T, IBM and Microsoft each faced regulatory sanction not just because of their size, but due to their indispensability.
You don’t have to have liked Donald Trump to believe that a former American president shouldn’t receive a lifetime ban on social media. After all, in what twisted moral universe does Ayatollah Khamenei, who repeatedly denies the Holocaust, threatens Israel and is responsible for nearly all the murderous mischief in the Middle East, deserve a Twitter platform while Trump does not?
The internet’s flinty private square, not unlike the old public square, is a marketplace filled with more junk than ideas. Neither soap boxes nor Twitter handles offer much in the way of mind expansion. Free speech is more costly than ever.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. His most recent book is titled “Saving Free Speech … From Itself.”