Few developments in recent memory have had more of an impact on the conservative faith in the virtues of the market than the outsized role social media companies have come to play in our lives. At one point long ago, in a very different America, social media was a “problem” insofar as it was clearly seen as a sort of dopamine rat maze marketed to impressionable children and feckless young adults.
Academics like Jonathan Haidt talked about the negative effects, such as a rapid spike in suicide attempts among girls that seems to have coincided with the public launch of Facebook. Meanwhile, the hegemonic libertarian orthodoxy of the Right offered a shrug in response: “Hey, it’s a free market, so if you don’t like it, log off and don’t use it!”
But those were the good old days of the 2000s and early 2010s, the heyday of a Bush and Obama-led neoliberal consensus. Back then, radical identitarian ideology, at least in the imaginations of many on the Right, was seen as a passing fad, a phase for “extremely online kids” and “liberal arts majors” who certainly would all grow out of it once they got “a real job.”
But as it happened, the companies and the workplaces bent to the whims of these extremely online liberal arts majors, while the ideologies of the Left held firm. And thus the role of social media companies went from merely exhausting the dopamine receptors and spiking anxieties among young folks to becoming fully-fledged political actors in their own right, using their power and their platforms in order to ”guide” political discussion.
It’s Not Just the Censorship
According to many Americans—the aforementioned “kids” prominently among them and leading the charge—it’s well and good that companies like Facebook and Twitter take steps to curb the spread of “misinformation” among the American populace. Without such steps, the alternative surely would be ever-increasing chaos, racism, and the oh-so-vaguely defined “fascism.” As a result of these speech restrictions imposed on private platforms, other Americans now perceive social media companies and the mainstream media, which is heavily dependent on social media for clicks, to be working in concert to stifle conservative points of view.
At first blush, this second view, that what we see in America and the West today constitutes a form of censorship of conservative viewpoints, as undertaken and financed by an ascendant liberal elite, has a lot to recommend it. How else, one wonders, might we explain the blatant double standards and conspicuous thumbs being placed on various political scales during the run-up to the 2020 “dump Trump” election?
Recently, YouTube announced that because the so-called safe harbor date had been passed with the state certification of the 2020 presidential election, the company would start deleting videos claiming the election was stolen. No such similar rule ever cropped up in 2016; indeed, one can still find videos on the platform today claiming that the Russians stole or bought the election for Donald Trump. And that is, of course, just one example among dozens or hundreds. Where were the ”independent fact checkers” during Russiagate, save when they were being castigated on social media as “contrarians”?
Even so, it is important for conservatives today to realize one basic truth. Convincing as this story may be, what we see in the West today is not a project aimed at censoring conservative ideas. To say that is not to deny that censorship goes on—in fact, it goes on every day, and it is getting worse with each successful intra-workplace crusade to bar ostensibly offensive thoughts from public view—but to underline that the problem is actually much worse than censorship.
Conservatives who remain too focused on the algorithms suppressing their own news articles or adding warning labels to their tweets risk missing a far more destructive process playing out before their eyes, with much more dire implications for the future of the American Republic.
To understand this, it’s important to think for a moment about how human beings share information and ideas with each other.
Contrary to popular belief, the most effective method—or, to put it in slightly different terms, the form of communication between humans with the most available ”bandwidth”—is also the oldest; it is most assuredly not new or dependent on advanced technology. Ideas spread most effectively through the social and familial bonds that tie human beings together.
This means that everyday chats taking place at the family dinner table, between coworkers at lunchtime, and between friends out on a hike are the most robust and effective way to spread the complex ideas associated with a new religion or political ideology.
A book about the first few centuries of Christendom by Rodney Stark, with the fitting title The Rise of Christianity, lays out this case in considerable detail. The executive summary, however, is quite simple: the most robust and efficacious method of disseminating large amounts of information occurs via face-to-face human bonds, which is exactly how Christianity managed to go from an insignificant sect to conquering the Roman world in just a few centuries.
We can illustrate this with a modern example. According to Stark’s book, Mormon missionaries have a successful conversion rate between one in 50 and one in a 100 on “cold calls,” i.e. cases where the target of the missionary work has no previous connection to Mormonism whatsoever. When the target of the conversion attempt is located in an area where he or she already knows a lot of Mormons, the conversion rate increases to upwards of 50 percent.
Why is this important? Well, it matters because anti-conservative ”censorship” is powerless against this social and ideological broadband channel. And this powerlessness, unfortunately, stems from a fairly widespread lack of interest. Even on the question of electoral fraud, censoring tweets amounts to pruning the leaves of a tree, while leaving the branches and the trunk intact.
One cannot control knowledge or stifle information merely by adding a notice about independent fact checkers to tweets about the presidential election, at least not as long as humans are creatures of flesh and blood rather than disembodied brains in formaldehyde jars who download all their information from “the Matrix.” Until that “brain-jarring” event happens, however, friends will talk to friends, family members will talk to other family members, and coworkers will talk to coworkers. Thus, conservative and other dissident ideas will spread through the “human, all-too-human” broadband connection consisting of broad bands of people who interact in person with each other.
If you need proof of this, dear reader, you have only to look around you; the fact that you are reading this is a fairly solid indicator that you belong to the part of America who have had conversations in your human community about the election that would not necessarily conform to YouTube’s or Facebook’s very virtual “community guidelines.”
As such, there’s a certain lack of historicity in today’s claims that Big Tech is engaged in—or at least has the potential to engage in—censorship beyond anything hitherto seen in human history. To hold to this view is to have drunk the Kool-Aid that Silicon Valley is routinely trying to sell about the incredible achievements and “disruption” they have been responsible for in human affairs. In a way, the opposite is true, and the United States, unlike the People’s Republic of China, is fairly unprepared for any serious censorious activity.
The True Nature of American Censorship
Here we must make a very basic point. Historically, censorship is not so much about controlling information as it is about jailing and punishing those who voice dissent. While one certainly can be punished for holding the wrong sort of conservative views in America today, the nature of the punishment is certainly a far cry from Chinese black sites or Soviet gulags! Moreover, truly totalitarian societies expend a lot of sweat and treasure when it comes to “putting boots on the ground,” hiring spies and informants by the tens and hundreds of thousands in order to keep watch over any budding wrongthink.
As of yet, such a system does not really exist in the United States, unless you happen to live in one of the handful of urban areas where progressive technocratic liberalism serves as a kind of state-mandated ideology administered primarily by the Human Resource departments of various “woke” employers.
But most Americans do not live in that world. So far, it seems, neither the lords of Silicon Valley nor the talking heads of the cathedral have any interest in policing speech or thought that happens outside of their view, in the cafeterias and kitchen tables of ”flyover America.”
None of this is meant to denigrate the very real feelings of being institutionally sabotaged and censored that many conservatives harbor today. Those feelings are real, and warranted. What the liberal elites of the West have undertaken, however, is not actually a project aimed at establishing Soviet or Chinese-style totalitarianism. The Chinese mandarin class cares deeply about what Chinese families talk about over the kitchen table, no matter how ”flyover” those families are, because the point of Chinese totalitarianism is to prevent the sort of dissent that could, in time, topple the regime.
Western elites, however, are mostly concerned with preventing any sort of ”wrongthink” from having any space in the public square. In the West, the point of “censorship” revolves around insulating the elites from the opinions and complaints of the growing mass of plebs, rendering them “untouchable” by such vulgar, heterodox deplorables. This is, in fact, an extraordinarily dangerous development.
Consider that most human societies throughout history have not promised free speech or freedom of the press to their subjects. Even so, most rulers throughout history have not been wholly uninterested in the complaints and grievances emanating from the ranks of the peasants or burghers. Controlling the ability to speak out about what you think is rotten is one thing, but only the most foolish ruler would ignore these complaints for too long, because ignoring these necessary pain signals coming from other parts of the social body can lead to injury or death.
This is what produces figures like Klemens von Metternich—grey eminences directing the secret police to open mail correspondence on the one hand and then jailing the notorious complainers, while on the other hand dutifully informing the Emperor exactly what the people were angry about and suggesting he proactively deal with the most pressing complaints before they break out into social unrest. This is also what produces the modern Chinese state: harshly punishing dissenters and malcontents, while simultaneously—for reasons of self-preservation—–trying to address and thus neutralize the causes behind the dissent.
You can accuse these leaders of all manners of tyrannical acts but you cannot, in good faith, accuse them of not caring about the conditions of the people they rule, given that their own high-status positions and perhaps even their very lives depend on it.
Our Suicidal Betters
And it is this that finally brings into sharper relief the true shape of Western media censorship, and its truly bleak implications for the future of America. If the goal was merely to prevent conservatives from spreading the idea that the election was stolen, then our current censorship regime has failed spectacularly. But that is not the goal, and the censors have not failed.
The true goal, rather unfortunately, is to instead insulate our failing elite in a hermetically sealed bubble, where only those who hold unthreatening, regime-affirming ideas are ever allowed to set foot. Unlike Metternich, whose spies opened people’s mail and then forwarded the most salient complaints to the relevant ministries, our elites do not care about what is written by “the deplorables,” as long as nobody in power actually has to listen to them! If “do not threaten the stability of our (somewhat) functional society” is the motto of totalitarianism, then “shut up and just go away” functions as the motto of our new Western elite.
This is a perilous climax we Westerners are careening towards. To repeat, totally censoring the spread of ideas among ”the deplorables” is probably impossible, but totally censoring the ideas that come into the hallowed circles of our elites is an increasingly achievable goal. One only has to look around at our media landscape to see how successful our elites have already become at this game.
An elite class insulated from the signals coming from the rest of the society is as dangerous as an athlete who can no longer feel pain: because pain signals are the body’s way of telling us that we should stop doing something before we hurt or kill ourselves. Athletes who cannot feel pain usually cannot prevent rapidly hurting or killing themselves, often in fairly gruesome ways. Elites who have stopped listening to the pain signals from the body politic not only risk hurting or killing themselves in similarly gruesome ways, but they also threaten the very societies they supposedly rule over, and the countless lives of the human subjects they are committed to neglecting.
These individuals would do well to take a lesson from the famously out-of-touch Julio-Claudian emperor Nero, a man of theatrical bent who is said to have fiddled during the catastrophic Great Fire of Rome, only to find himself four years later confronted with a civil war that threatened to end his calamitous reign. After pacing nervously and muttering “what an artist dies with me,” and unable to find a gladiator who could slay him with a single strike or muster in himself the courage to commit suicide, he ordered his private secretary to murder him—mere moments before couriers arrived who would have brought him before the Senate to work out some compromise to limit his powers but keep him and his deified bloodline in power.
Let us end this on a final, sad example of the success of this decidedly non-totalitarian censorship. The COVID-19 crisis and the haphazard, random, and arbitrary lockdown policies are currently devastating America, with economic and social fallout playing to the tune of another Great Depression. But unlike that older crisis, today’s pain is not evenly shared: the plebs running the small businesses or waiting the tables are utterly devastated, while the professional classes sit smugly behind their screens, ordering food via apps staffed by precarious contractors and shopping via Amazon, where contingent workers pack and ship their glittering prizes. And yet, one could be forgiven for thinking we basically do not have an economic crisis at all, so complete is the silence coming from our chattering classes regarding the fate of middle America.
Does anyone think this is somehow a coincidence? A flaw in the system? An unfortunate oversight, soon to be corrected? No. Here, too, the censorship does the job it was always designed to do.
Conservatives today think they are right to be worried about censorship. And they are very right to be worried. But they are not worried enough about these increasing pain signals failing to register, and what that systemic failure augurs for the future. On the campaign trail in 1992, Bill Clinton famously reassured a heckler that he could “feel his pain.” But 1992 was several lifetimes ago, and heckling should now be the least of the concerns facing a socially distanced elite that no longer wants to feel anyone’s pain, indeed no longer desires to feel anything uncomfortable at all. Today one hardly needs to be a Julio-Claudian to fiddle while America slowly burns.