Saturday, October 17, 2020

Tech Censorship and the Future of Free Speech

For the better part of 2020, I've devoted myself to kicking the tires at social-media platforms outside of Silicon Valley — which basically means anything not named Facebook, Twitter, or Google. I've always been distrustful of massive concentrations of power, whether in government, the corporate world, or anywhere else. And when a handful of companies with monopoly power can essentially control what the public sees or can talk about, I believe it becomes incumbent on people who care about the free dissemination of ideas to seek out alternatives and shun those that would use their power to silence ideas.

My blog is still stuck on Google's Blogger, and unfortunately it may have to stay here until I get kicked out. Moving eight years of posts is a more time-consuming task than I can deal with right now. But I can control my other social-media preferences, and that's how I ended up at VK. It wasn't the first alternative platform I tried out, but I picked it for a number of reasons. Those reasons are different from why I've also chosen to hang around at Minds. I've also set up accounts at MeWe, Gab, Wimkin, Parler, Orbys, ColdCast,, and probably some others I've forgotten about. Some of them I find interesting and useful. Others I don't visit anymore. But I think they're all worth at least trying out.

I had high hopes that some of my Facebook friends would follow me in my migration. So far, I think one person from my friends list has set up an account on one other platform. My friends' overall lack of interest in leaving Facebook put me in a bind, because I like seeing what my Facebook friends have to say. If they weren't going to come with me, then I had to figure something else out.

So I set up a Facebook group where those who enjoyed seeing my takes on current events could gather. And predictably, Facebook “fact-checked” the very first thing I posted. There was nothing factually incorrect about the article. To the contrary, the finding that 85% of those who caught C-19 wore masks was extracted from the CDC's own data. Even worse, Facebook's overlay said there's no evidence that wearing masks contributes to an increased risk of catching the virus — which had absolutely nothing to do with what the article said. Facebook's “fact-checks” have always been about narrative control; now they're actually making up irrelevant claims to suppress stories they don't want you to see.

This wasn't the first time Facebook had “fact-checked” something I posted related to the hysteria surrounding the virus. It did the same when I shared the finding that only 6% of U.S. COVID deaths were attributable to the virus alone. Facebook's “fact-check” had something to do with telling people they didn't understand what comorbidities are — which of course missed the entire point that C-19 death numbers have been inflated by medical providers, who have a financial incentive to do so, while the establishment media benefits from keeping the public fearful and compliant as it runs cover for its Big Pharma sponsors.

Political bias laid bare

Facebook's phony “fact-check” on the masking story made me leery of wading into politics on Facebook again. I knew where this road led. It always leads to the same place.
This just happened to be the same day the New York Post's Hunter Biden story broke. And you know how that turned out. Twitter throttled the story by cooking up a lame excuse about not promoting hacked materials or revealing information that comes from unauthorized sources.

Of course, the job of a journalist has always been to get at the truth, even if it means releasing information that bad actors want to keep hidden. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out, using Twitter's standards for what can be published would mean that everything from Daniel Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers to WikiLeaks' and Edward Snowden's document drops would never have seen the light of day. And, not surprisingly, Twitter held itself to no such standard when users shared stories about Donald Trump's tax returns, which The New York Times admitted were obtained “without authorization,” or the Atlantic hit piece filled with “anonymous sources” that claimed Trump slandered war veterans, or, of course, nearly four years of claims about Russian collusion with Trump, which has all been debunked as an attempt to divert attention away from Hillary Clinton's malfeasance (which I called right from the start).

Facebook's role in this coordinated attack on the Post involved shadow-banning the story until it could be vetted. It's no coincidence that the person who made the announcement of Facebook's stance, policy communications director Andy Stone, has a long history of involvement with high-level Democratic politics.

While this was all unfolding, I also learned that Facebook had taken down a liberty-oriented group I belonged to called People's Rights, along with the personal accounts of all the group's admins and moderators. Mind you, this was a political activist group that did nothing more than share articles, hold discussions about the topics of the day, and organize gatherings and campaigns. All perfectly legal First Amendment activity. Never once did it promote violence or engage in any type of aggressive behavior. Ammon Bundy's personal account was nuked, too, suggesting that Facebook was in the midst of yet another of its systematic purges of conservative people and pages.

But the throttling of the Post story is as blatant as Twitter and Facebook have ever been about engaging in the kind of partisan censorship that they always claim they refrain from. Twitter went so far as to lock the accounts of the White House press secretary and the Trump re-election page for sharing the Post article before someone in D.C. finally took action and subpoenaed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Now Dorsey has to explain himself for his electioneering just a few weeks before Election Day.

The point is, I tried to find a way to stay on Facebook for my friends' sake on the same day Facebook hit me with another fake fact-check and all hell broke loose with the Post article. Between that and the takedown of People's Rights, it was like being given a sign from the heavens that I was right to have left the platform in the first place.

Problems and solutions

But it shouldn't have to be like this. In the early days of the internet, people could speak freely about what was on their minds. Then a few small companies rose to such prominence that they essentially became the gatekeepers of internet communication, replacing the early visions of the internet as a place of unlimited resources and information with one where a tiny cabal of monopolists, in cahoots with governments around the world, control what you could say and see. In the same way that six corporations control 90% of broadcast and print media, so Facebook and Google alone control about 60% of all internet traffic — a number that will only rise. Moreover, Google, Facebook, and Twitter make up five of the world's 10 most visited websites, when you include Facebook-owned Instagram and Google-owned YouTube. Throw in Amazon for good measure, and you essentially have 10 CEOs controlling the content of all public media. We've never seen such a small concentration of control over discourse and the free dissemination of ideas in all of human history.

Antitrust law exists for situations exactly like these. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gave companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google protections against what users say on their platforms — and those three companies have taken that tremendous gift and abused it to their own ideological ends. Instead of acting in good faith like a neutral platform, akin to the UPS box that your package comes in, Big Tech has taken the protections granted to it and selectively suppressed free speech on its platforms anyway.

These companies are obligated to act in the public interest. They're failing to do that, and as such, they need to be regulated. Imagine if your phone company turned off your service for saying something the company didn't like on a phone call. Facebook, Twitter, and Google need to be held to exactly the same standard.

If these companies had not grown so powerful as to function as the equivalent of the town square, their selective censorship wouldn't be a concern. But when being silenced on Facebook or Twitter amounts to being deprived of a public voice — or, for those who make their living online, being deprived of a livelihood — then their censorship becomes an issue of importance to everyone who values free expression and the free exchange of thoughts and ideas.

All those who say “private companies can do whatever they want” or “go start your own platform if you don't like it” are promoting a disingenuous argument. First of all, no company can do whatever it wants. Whether it's ADA compliance, treating your customers without race- or sex-based discrimination, or the health department's insistence that you get the bugs out of the kitchen, every company has rules to follow.

Second, telling people to start their own social-media platform would be all well and good if a level playing field existed. But we all know that it doesn't. That's the whole problem: Monopolies distort the free market. Sure, I can start my own online book company if I don't like Amazon's policies, but Amazon, with its virtually unlimited money and power, would squash me like a bug, either by undercutting me on price or buying up my assets and putting me out of business.

Similarly, while it's great to have alternative social-media platforms like Minds that are built on the defense of free speech, telling someone on Facebook who doesn't like the censorship to set up their own company is like telling them to leave the town square and set up shop on a street corner in a remote part of town. Some of the people who agree with you will follow you there, but most of the normies will stick with the censorious town square, giving the censors even more power while dooming most free-speech startups to being niche echo chambers that will never have any real influence.

The obvious solution is to rewrite Section 230 to compel social-media companies to allow all legal speech on their sites. This is what companies like Minds and Gab already do by default. Let people see multiple points of view. Let them debate about which points of view have merit and which don't. This is how a healthy society based on free expression and the free exchange of ideas should operate. That it doesn't speaks volumes about where we are, and about the size of the threat to free speech.

The consequences we face

Make no mistake: This won't end whether Trump wins or loses — though it's sure to get far worse if he loses and the Woke Left has free rein to cancel anyone with an opposing point of view. Bear in mind that many on the Left, including academics and prominent Democratic politicians, already want to rewrite Section 230 to give social media companies more, not less, power to censor content.

But it gets far worse. Just this week, Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who's one of the most tireless proponents of online censorship, chaired a congressional discussion of not just how to shut down free speech on mainstream platforms, but also how to hunt down those who migrate to alternative sites and assure their censorship there as well. And that could easily be done by exerting Woke pressure on domain registrars, banks, payment processors, and credit card companies. It's already happening — just ask VDare and Gab. The fact that a member of the United States Congress is leading a discussion that would normalize this kind of behavior should terrify anyone who values our constitutional liberties.

People like Schiff are one of the reasons I chose VK as a platform. As a Russia-based company, VK is protected from whatever outrageous attacks on free speech that far-left U.S. politicians cook up in their never-ending lust for control over everybody's lives. In short, VK is, one hopes, beyond the reach of the Woke. Not that VK and Russia don't have their own problems. But if nothing else, VK is one of the 20 most visited websites in the world — so while a lot of free-speech social-media upstarts may or may not survive, at least there's the comfort of knowing that VK isn't going anywhere, and chances are you aren't going to get censored.

Understand that this stuff has real-life consequences. When Facebook, Google, and Twitter started to organize purges of voices on the fringes, like Alex Jones, few people took notice. But the problem with censorship, as always, is that once you justify silencing one group of people, you can then justify casting the net wider and wider. You may not care that Facebook has the power to silence every QAnon and three-percenter group on its platform, but you'll care when they start coming for groups that aren't even controversial, like People's Rights, or for you personally. Then you won't be saying “just go find another platform if you don't like it” anymore.

Then there's the fear-based C-19 agenda. We've never had a study showing that masks have any significant effect against viral transmission. But try to show data that 85% of C-19 patients wore masks before they got sick, and Facebook “fact-checks” you. Point to the Barrington Declaration, written by three epidemiologists and signed by nearly 40,000 scientists and medical practitioners as of this writing, that calls for the lockdowns to end and to adopt a strategy similar to the Swedish model that let the healthy population build herd immunity — and Google shadow-bans it in its search. Same for the WHO's recommendation that lockdowns be used only as a desperation last resort because of the damage they do both to economic well-being and to physical and mental health, or to any data showing that lockdowns haven't worked.

If you're a doctor, don't mention your success with hydroxychloroquine in treating the virus. That's “dangerous and misleading information.” Because what do you know? You're only a doctor, and the establishment has to demonize any information on a decades-old generic in favor of protecting Big Pharma.

And don't even bother trying to point out that rising case numbers don't matter if the survival rate for anyone under 70 is well over 99%. This is the black plague, catching the virus is a death sentence, herd immunity is a dangerous strategy, and the lockdowns and mask mandates have to continue until either there's a vaccine or our overlords say so.

Thus, because social media allows only one narrative on C-19, the economy will continue to worsen, domestic abuse will continue to rise, substance abuse will continue to grow, suicides will continue to increase, and our individual liberties will continue to erode as penalties ramp up for noncompliance with useless diktats against a virus that for the overwhelming majority of the general population is a bad cold.

Granted, none of this is new. Those in power have always suppressed truths that are inconvenient to the establishment narrative. That's why Edward Snowden is in exile and Julian Assange rots in prison. And thanks to the manipulation of technology and the consolidation of power, the people in charge have arguably more power than ever before to control the narrative and silence their opponents. What's at stake is no less than the free flow of information, which is simply not possible when a small handful of megacorps with billions of dollars get to decide what you can read.

Critics say that the First Amendment applies only to government censorship, which is true enough. But when you live in a world where massive corporations have more money than the GDP of some small nations and collude with governments both to spy on their own citizens and to shape what can and can't be said on their platforms, whether the censorship comes from Congress or Facebook makes little difference. The result to the shadow-banned or banished end user is the same. And the consequences for free speech are dire either way.

This is the threat we face. It absolutely must be dealt with, before we lose our grip on free expression for good.

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