Submitted by Mark Glennon of Wirepoints
Democracy is subverted when the free exchange of information and opinion is suppressed.
That subversion is now reality in America and much of the world thanks primarily to censorship by big technology platforms and our unapologetically dishonest and biased national media.
Last week, the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate held hearings on one of those causes, big tech censorship. If you are unaware of how pernicious and common that censorship has become, particularly by Twitter and Facebook, you are dangerously uninformed. Comedian Bill Maher, hardly a right-winger, said it right: The censorship is “evil” and “f—ed up.”
This is not about Trump. He and censorship of him are now in mostly in the rear view mirror. Though censorship was blatantly targeted at him, it’s the future that matters now, — whether the marketplace of ideas can survive in a world where big tech’s authoritarianism is broad and growing.
For example, Twitter and Facebook last week censored Oxford University scientists who posted an article about a recent study questioning the effectiveness of face masks to stop COVID-19. One of the censored authors said such censorship is “one of the reasons we face a global meltdown of free thinking and science.” His name, sadly ironic, is Thomas Jefferson.
Question big tech censorship and even prominent liberals face retribution. For example, Glenn Greenwald, a respected liberal journalist, dared to question big tech’s brazen suppression of stories about Hunter Biden’s emails and foreign influence peddling. His story on it was killed by The Intercept. Commendably, Greenwald then resigned from that publication.
With hundreds of other examples readily available, it was therefore entirely appropriate and urgent for the Judiciary Committee to take up the matter. Aside from the meltdown of free thinking and science that Prof. Jefferson described, many of America’s razor-thin elections beyond the presidential race could easily have been turned by false narratives rigged by big tech. Easily.
But how did Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a Judiciary Committee member, preface his comments?
It’s a big waste of time and a political stunt, he told us. “I think there are more important and timely questions…but we are trying to determine whether or not the social media instruments of America are fair to the Republican Party.”
What’s more important? Oh, national security, the pandemic and the possibility that Trump would refuse to leave when the election is certified, Durbin said.
No, Senator Durbin. The Judiciary Committee is the top legislative oversight body on the rule of law in what is supposed to be the world’s leading democracy. National security and coronavirus are not within the committee’s charge. And a speculative case on presidential transition is premature for a hearing. What is within its jurisdiction, and should be top priorities, are freedom of expression and the hotly debated Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives big tech immunity and central the censorship issue.
As for the censorship, bring it on. Durbin wants more.
He wants more censorship to combat hate crimes, he said. That means stifling hate speech. Citing numbers on hate crimes, he said, “It’s clear to me that it’s more important that social media combat this more than ever. “Are you looking the other way on that?” he asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
We’ve seen repeatedly that hate speech, to many on the left, is pretty much everything said by anybody on the right. Would Durbin include among his concerns the endless labeling of some 72 million Republican voters as white supremacists and fascists or violence by radical leftists who are encouraged by that kind of labeling? No, Durbin made it clear he didn’t mean that. “This is not Antifa. These are documented hate crimes from the FBI…”
Under the First Amendment, hate speech is permitted as long as it doesn’t rise to the level of provoking violence. That’s as it should be. Everybody should be free to express hatred towards, for example, those they regard as fascists or communists, provided they don’t incite violence. But the First Amendment does not cover private entities like big tech and Durbin, like many on the left, showed no interest in letting First Amendment be the precedent for big tech censorship, provided it is targeted selectively at the right.
Some of Durbin’s colleagues on the Judiciary Committee joined him with calls for more censorship by big tech. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), for example, asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey why Twitter doesn’t have a standalone climate change misinformation policy. “Helping to disseminate climate denialism in my view, further facilitates and accelerates one of the greatest existential threats to our world.”
Illinois’ other senator, Tammy Duckworth, earlier had a particularly stupefying response to concerns about big tech censorship. Regarding a previous hearing on the topic by a different Senate committee, she said it was Repubicans “aiding Trump’s and Russia’s efforts to use social media for misinformation campaigns” and “undermine confidence in our democracy.”
Got that? You’re helping Russia if you’re against censorship.
Despite such attitudes, the Judiciary Committee hearing uncovered a major turn for the worse on tech censorship: They collude on who and what to censor. Facebook, Twitter and Google use a software communication tool called Centra to communicate on who and what they want to stifle, which magnifies the impact of any decision by any one of them. What’s clear, however, is that a solution must be found because a keystone of open society is shattered.
A telling postscript to the hearing is that NBC, ABC and CBS all refused any coverage of it.
How to address the problem of big tech censorship is challenging and reasonable minds differ. Their platforms are more powerful than any other public forum in history, yet their censors make no pretense of selectively enforcing their dictates or applying any of the time-honored principles our courts have developed under the First Amendment. And Section 230 is a complicated matter.
Pending a solution, here is where we are:
First, what tens of millions of people read for news is determined by the two people shown here.
Second, the subversion of democracy by suppression of the free exchange of information and opinion is no longer just a threat. It’s here.