2016 Election

How Social Media Collusion Censors Speech


- August 29th, 2018
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Whether it is Twitter’s “shadowban,” Facebook’s news-sifting algorithm, or YouTube’s concern for user “safety,” social media gatekeeping is now deployed shamelessly in the service of leftist politics. The latest victim is Alex Jones. While he is bombastic, prone to conspiracy theories, and, um, loud, that’s not why they banned him. He supports President Trump and is a critic of elite conventional wisdom. That’s his crime.

The Establishment Is Trying to Prevent a Repeat of 2016
In the early days of the World Wide Web—almost 20 years ago now—the watchword was freedom, whether freedom from censorship, freedom from local governments’ sales taxes, or freedom from government surveillance. The emerging tech companies then expressed reasonable concern that restrictions from these quarters would cripple the industry, defeating the emerging benefits of the instantaneous, nearly anonymous, and highly connected network that is the internet.

Then the election of 2016 happened. It was a wake up call to the tech world’s emerging establishment. It particularly traumatized those who thought Obama’s election was a permanent elevation of his politics, his style, as well as the “emerging majority” that brought him to power.

As they previously have done in talk radio, on social media the far right has shown acumen and effectiveness. While this may seem merely like preaching to the converted, it also encourages supporters and the uncommitted by undermining the dominant Left’s pretentions of inevitability and unanimity. Twitter in particular was a great equalizer. Whether president or peon, the accounts looked the same. It soon was overrun by a highly motivated army of right-leaning critics and trolls, hilarious anonymous memes, Pepe the Frog, Trump’s Taco Bowl, and, ultimately, their collective efforts contributed to his electoral victory.

Leftist Conventional Wisdom is Fragile
The conventional wisdom, while presented as an average, non-ideological viewpoint commanding near-universal support, turned out to be highly fragile. For starters, it was not that popular. It was also quite fragile. Sustained criticism undermined such dubious mainstream-media narratives as “hands up don’t shoot” or that diversity is our strength.

The power of propaganda depends, in large part, upon suppressing the voices of critics. And, for the insouciant, it depends upon threats of doxing, shaming, and violence. This was all hard to do in the unruly, equalizing, and potentially anonymous environments of YouTube, Twitter, and podcasts. The constant invocation of “Russian Collusion” and the suggestion that Trump supporters were centrally-controlled “bots” was a last ditch effort to undermine what was, in fact, an uncoordinated and spontaneous revolt against the leftist elite and its viewpoint. So now outright censorship has become the tool of choice.

The Alex Jones ban was particularly egregious. On one day, Youtube, Facebook, Apple, and Spotify killed off his Infowars media empire, many years in the making. Clearly they did not all simultaneously discover his (in my opinion, classless) schtick about “crisis actors.” That was a mere pretext. It was a coordinated effort not only to stop him, but to put fear into the hearts of lesser lights on the right, including controversial voices like Vdare, Steve Sailer, or Stefan Molyneaux. The only remarkable thing about the deplatforming of Alex Jones was that Twitter didn’t follow suit immediately, but it soon got with the program. This was coordination, collusion, or, if you will, a conspiracy by monopolies in order to suppress his message. It was justified by the Orwellian concept of policing “hate speech” and of promoting “safety.”

Antitrust Trouble
In the age of internet monopolies, it would be worthwhile to dust off the antitrust laws. These laws were enacted over 100 years ago to stop monopolistic practices that hurt consumers, raised prices, and concentrated power in too few hands. While their chief purpose is to stop the evil of anticompetitive “price fixing,” these laws serve other purposes, including maintaining a competitive environment.

There are many controversies in antitrust law when practices are analyzed in light of economic theory; the one area where there is little debate, however, is price fixing. There is a consensus among experts that price fixing serves no beneficial purpose, because it raises prices, reduces quantity, and transfers money from consumers to the price fixers with no corresponding social benefit. Thus, it is a “per se” violation of the various antitrust laws and regulations, and even the market-oriented Chicago School hazards few defenses.

For conservatives wary of government intervention in the economy, the antitrust laws are some of the least offensive and most surgical of interventions. Adam Smith, whose free market credentials are undeniable, warned that “[p]eople of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Like more general restrictions on fraud found in the common law, these laws serve the broader principle of fostering free market competition and the broader public welfare.

Just as price fixing is illegal, so are collusive agreements to maintain a certain level of quality. In a famous Fair Trade Commission case from the 1960s, macaroni manufactures were punished for responding to a supply shock by agreeing to limit the quality of wheat that went into their products. The application of this principle should not change in the admittedly very different context of social media, where companies today have coordinated their decisions over who can and cannot be heard in the name of “safety” and stopping “hate speech.” After all, the coin of the realm in social media is not money or wheat, but speakers, ideas, and memes.

The harms of such collusion are obvious. In an ordinary competitive environment, any one company’s abandonment of a particular market or audience is a potential gain for his competitors. If one nightclub plays country, its competitor can play rock, and another one still can have reggae. Similarly, on the internet, if YouTube got rid of Alex Jones, Vimeo could pick him up. But when they coordinate, no one can pick up the slack.

While there may be some uncertainty whether any one social media company is so big that its coordination with others is unnecessary—Facebook, Google, and probably Twitter qualify—there is no doubt that their coordinated actions will always restrict the market severely. In such a case, the only option available for the suppressed voices to be heard is a fanciful one: to build their own internet. In other words, with coordinated activity, the social media behemoths can shut out ideas and speakers from being heard and artificially elevate those with which they agree. Because of the coordination, the market is unable to respond.

Conservatism Inc.’s take on all of this is rather weak, fighting the last war as usual. Put simply, it is “I don’t like this kind of censorship, but I like government intervention even less.”

In spite of the mechanical wariness of government action, even Conservatism Inc. would permit certain deviations from free market orthodoxy. Do these free market purists talk this way about civil rights laws? After all, those laws interfere with big business and their “freedom of contract.” What about other consumer protection laws, such as limits on interest rates or mandatory disclosures of product contents? Perhaps, while not liking censorship or government intervention, they like even less to be reminded that their version of conservatism is losing out to the refreshing, common sense nationalism of Donald Trump.

While there is much to debate under the sun, the questions should not be whether a policy is faithful to abstract market principles or whether it involves government intervention. This is a shortcut to real thinking, a rote exercise in matching words to theories. The question is whether a particular intervention serves the public interest.

Markets, Social Media, and the Laws Should Serve the Public Interest
Do we want to live in a society where a cliquish and highly ideological Silicon Valley elite take our money, as well as our data, while also getting together in Davos to decide what we can and cannot listen to? To stop this, there is no need to break new ground; collusion on both price and quality is already a “per se” violation of antitrust laws, and these restrictions have been acknowledged by pro-free-market conservatives for decades as sensible limits on an otherwise free economy.

Part of the MAGA agenda is to jettison the unthinking subservience of the Republican Party to corporate and other special interests. While any notion of the public interest should also be pro-business, business itself should be pro-American.

For a long time, the party and its leadership threw red meat to its base on social issues during campaign season, while spending most of its energies pursuing policies that assisted one part of our society, our large businesses, by reducing labor and other costs. Thus, Republicans promote free trade and open borders with near-religious fervor, even though these policies are both harmful to their other stated goals and unpopular with their base.

Over time, certain corners of corporate America have become positively hostile to the values, goals, and habits of Republican Voters. Look at advertising. Large corporations, particularly in the new economy, have shown little fidelity to free market or conservative principles when the broader leftist social agenda was implicated. They didn’t rally for the Colorado baker, Hobby Lobby, nor against the massive intervention of the TARP bailout. Unlike Jefferson’s yeoman farmers and today’s small business owners, large corporations, as often as not, pursue rent-seeking, regulations that sink the competition, special favors, and now leftist social policies.  Profits and efficiency have become secondary.

Free-market principles have limits. They exist within and should serve the country’s welfare as a whole. There are many sensible limits on unrestrained markets, including wage and hour laws, pollution controls, and limitations on exports to protect national security. Antitrust laws are part of this scheme. They do not permit price-fixing or quality-fixing collusion, haven’t for over 100 years, and no conservative of consequence would defend such behavior.

President Trump and Attorney General Sessions should deploy the tools at their disposal to stop collusive censorship by large social media companies. In doing so, they would be in good company. Ronald Reagan, lest we forget, historically employed the antitrust laws to break up the “Ma Bell” telephone monopoly in 1982. There the issue was technical and related to pricing and market power, not the more important question of who you could listen to and what you could say.

Teddy Roosevelt achieved some of his fame and good reputation from being a “Trust Buster.”  Trump too has rolled into the swamp with the mandate of reform. Without robust protections for free speech from monopolies and cooperating gatekeepers, the fact that these restrictions are done by “private enterprise” will prove irrelevant.  He would find strong support—from all but Conservatism, Inc.—to limit the power of ideologically motivated and arguably illegal cooperation by these companies. Business should stick to making money rather than getting involved in deciding what is or is not permissible speech.

Photo Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

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