My first encounter with social media fact-checking was over a year ago, when Facebook appended a “false information” tag to a meme I had posted about World War II, of all things. An article by PolitiFact, to which Facebook directed everyone who saw this meme, informed us that careful research had proved that gun control did not, in fact, help advance the Holocaust, and so it was not fair to use the Holocaust as an argument against gun control in America.
One problem with this article is the touchingly naïve idea that a complex question, over which historians continue to argue, could be stamped true or false as though it were a fact you’d simply been too lazy to look up.
A second problem is that this fact-checking article is full of factual errors. But that’s not surprising when such articles are generally written by a twentysomething journalism school graduate who became an “expert” in World War II that afternoon after her supervisor told her to research a meme on the Internet.
The biggest problem, however, was that Facebook had decided that this question—remote and unimportant as it might be in our daily lives—was not something you should be allowed to think about. If you thought about it yourself, unguided, as though you were, say, an adult and not a schoolchild, you might come to the wrong conclusion. And lest you be misled into thinking there was a connection between gun control and tyranny, Facebook had looked into the matter for you. And don’t worry, they found there wasn’t any connection, so you can rest easy and move on to the fluffy kitten pictures.
I thought that Facebook’s obnoxious foray into the realm of telling us what to think might disappear with as little fanfare as it had arrived. But, before we knew it, the fact-checkers were everywhere, and on every platform: Suddenly, posts and comments on Facebook weren’t simply tagged as “false”—they were being removed completely, blasted off the face of the digital landscape.
Facebook came up with a new category of prohibited post—information taken “out of context.” This was used, just a few days ago, to warn users against a meme of Stalin saying that elections are decided by the people who count the votes, not by the people who cast them. Facebook’s explanation of the context? Stalin may actually have said that, but he wasn’t talking about general elections since they didn’t have those in Soviet Russia—so clearly the meme is wrong.
Twitter covered up tweets with warnings and prevented other users from liking or re-tweeting them. “We try to prevent a Tweet like this that otherwise breaks the Twitter Rules from reaching more people,” Twitter says when you try to retweet, “so we have disabled most of the ways to engage with it.”
Google de-emphasized search results to steer users to approved opinions, and YouTube removed videos that pushed what they regarded as unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. This included, for example, YouTube’s removal of a Breitbart video in which doctors praised hydroxychloroquine as an effective drug in the treatment of COVID-19. These doctors evidently hadn’t heard that the science on that point was settled—just like that meme about World War II.
User accounts were suspended, banned, demonetized and prevented from posting, for taking the wrong side on important contemporary issues. One black Trump supporter posted a video complaining about how he’d been suspended for what Facebook called “inauthentic behavior.” That sounds racist to me, but Facebook will tell me it’s not.
Just before the presidential election, a leading New York newspaper solicited my father, computer scientist David Gelernter, for an article on the subject of social media censorship. We wrote it together. The article was never published. This was the closing paragraph:
This issue will come to a head in one month, far before the government or the judiciary or even private industry can do anything about it. Big Tech, whose directors and employees donate so overwhelmingly to Democrat candidates and causes, will use the tools developed in their running experiment on censorship in an attempt to control and channel national conversation on election night and the days following. There is nothing you can do to stop it: For this election, at least, it is too late. The only thing you can do is to be aware that it is happening.
And now my left-liberal friends who spent the last four years chanting “Russia Russia Russia” suddenly think it’s insane to question the integrity of our elections. The mainstream media has made their call on the winner—but it’s social media that will make sure it stays that way.
Search for any election video on YouTube, and YouTube puts this notice below the frame: “The AP has called the presidential race for Joe Biden. Robust safeguards help ensure the integrity of elections and results.”
Any election-related post on Facebook will have a card attached beneath that directs users to Facebook’s own “Voting Information Center,” which contains “Facts About the Election.” For example: “Election officials follow strict rules when it comes to ballot counting, handling and reporting.” Or: “Both voting in person and voting by mail have a long history of trustworthiness in the US. Voter fraud is extremely rare across voting methods.”
Begin typing “fraud” in Twitter’s search bar, and, rather than suggestions for tweets or topics, you’ll see a little notice saying, “US elections: Voter fraud of any kind is exceedingly rare . . . ” Search for “#fraud” and Twitter’s type-ahead will act as though the hashtag doesn’t exist.
You can forgive some of my conservative friends for feeling despondent in the wake of the election. Despite the unanimous chorus of official sources repeating the same story, almost word for word, there is a nagging feeling of discontent. There was no rioting, no looting, not a single window smashed, but more than 70 million Americans aren’t satisfied.
The media prepared us with the story of the “red mirage” to explain why we would go to sleep with Trump in the lead in all battleground states, only to wake up in the morning to see that he had lost. But why did the red mirage only happen in states that didn’t count their mail-in ballots until after the election? How do 100,000 votes appear all for Biden—and only for Biden, with no down-ballot votes for other offices? We aren’t allowed to ask, or even, it would seem, to think about it.
Just as when President Trump said at a town hall he didn’t know for certain what QAnon believed and the moderator interrupted and said “I just told you,” as though that was that, the social media elites with their million-mind megaphones have told you the truth. It’s the only truth. They’ve spoken it to power, and that is all you need to know.
But, underneath this confident swagger, a hint of panic is seeping into the reportage: What happens, the intellectual elite wonders, if we can’t hold onto this election for Biden? That is why we suddenly see articles popping up, hinting or even stating explicitly (without so much as a fact-check) that Trump is staging a coup. That he might use legal tricks or even military force to stay in power. This, believe it or not, is the backup plan: To tell us that, while elections cannot be stolen, Trump might still steal the election, just like he stole the last one.
And this is a very dangerous game. The mainstream media and social media together have sown the wind. But the whirlwind will come not from the Right, but from the Left: From their own comrades and foot-soldiers of progressivism.
If Trump loses, you have more than 72 million Americans who may feel that elections have no meaning, and that there is no point even in voting again—and that’s a terrible, terrible thing.
But if Trump wins—and I think he will—what then can we expect from the people who organized CHOP and BLM and Antifa? What can we expect from the other 70 million Americans, the ones who believe the media’s line that the only way Trump can stay in office is by becoming an ipso facto dictator? And what happens then to the stores that, unlike Apple on Madison Avenue, can’t afford to hire contractors to put up color-themed plywood barriers? What happens to the homes that, unlike the posh Park Avenue buildings, can’t afford to hire their own armed guards?
Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others have overplayed their hand dangerously. They wanted to create a happier world in which we weren’t troubled by wrong information or misleading ideas. Instead they have led America, by the nose, to the brink of genuine catastrophe. They’ve already got their excuses prepared, they’ve got the explanation all worked out—it was Trump’s fault. But they may find, one day soon, that Americans have had enough of them.