What happens when the “public square” is guarded by gatekeepers eager to censor anything they view as inappropriate political speech?
That’s a question many conservative and libertarian activists are now asking, as “progressive” social-media companies accelerate their crusade against anything that gets labeled as hate speech, online bullying and fake news.
At its outset, platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube promised to be some of the greatest tools for public debate and the education of opinion mankind had ever seen. With the rise of social media, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection suddenly had the capability to stand on a virtual soapbox and actually be heard.
Yes, you might not like what you heard, but Voltaire’s position — ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ — was still the default. Unfortunately, however, the same social media companies that gave every Internet user a megaphone, are now either running scared (Facebook) or are actually titillated by the idea of thought control (Google).
So in recent years, conservatives and libertarians have often found themselves on the “wrong” side of social media’s newly-created speech codes — codes subjective at best and at worst blatantly biased against any thoughts inconsistent with the “politically correct” progressive dogmas of the moment.
An example: Brownells Inc. — the world’s largest supplier of gunsmithing supplies — found its account suddenly suspended by YouTube earlier this year.
Brownells’ videos are mere instructional videos demonstrating modern gunsmith techniques, but Google, owner of YouTube, deemed the videos to violate its community standards by “promoting gun violence.”
In other words, the mere fact that the videos were focused on firearms was enough to trigger the censorship of a major and well respected company.
Brownells appealed the ban, and their account was reinstated. However, millions of similar videos by companies with far less muscle remain banned, demonetized or somewhere in bureaucratic limbo as YouTube self-righteously acts as the arbiter of acceptable speech on guns.
Sometimes, it’s not even ostensibly controversial topics — such as firearm ownership — that end up in the crosshairs of Big Tech’s war on speech.
Over the Fourth of July holiday, Facebook’s automated algorithm used to target “hate speech” flagged a passage from the Declaration of Independence as inappropriate, prohibiting the post from being shared.
There are countless other cases of routine political discourse being targeted for allegedly violating bogus “community guidelines.” The Orwellian nature of those politically-correct guidelines reveal no sense that, even in a perfect world, could they be politically neutral.
Of course, this shouldn’t be surprising.
The social media and tech industry has, for years, been dominated by callow young professionals saturated in the undiluted “progressive” culture of west coast universities.
Terminally ignorant of the depth and breadth of free speech in Western Civilization, they’ve grown up amid the inanities of political correctness, and so find de facto censorship comforting.
Thus, we’ve seen this impulse for thought control run rampant on college campuses and in public education. But now the very gatekeepers of the Internet are attempting to police social, political and historical discourse as well.
The good news, however, is that the near-monopoly status of these current platforms — while a major reason for short-term concern — will not ultimately protect them from the broad backlash that’s already occurring.
Today’s giants of tech are tomorrow’s irrelevant dinosaurs.
Remember Netscape? What about MySpace? What about Internet Explorer?
Indeed, even Facebook is now struggling to maintain its popularity among younger generations, and consumers are showing growing dissatisfaction with its intrusive data-harvesting business model.
Despite our general dependence on these massive tech companies for our daily work, social lives and political news, the industry is still changing at a breakneck pace and consumers remain constantly eager for alternatives.
The tech industry, in the grand scheme of things, remains in its volatile and disruptive early years. How long is “early”? It’s still too soon to tell.
But there are already new alternatives to today’s near-monopolies, and none of us need rest content with Facebook or Google. One thing is for sure: the landscape of the 21st century public square will undoubtedly change in dramatic fashion.
What the future landscape looks like for free speech will depend entirely on the values we teach the next wave of innovators and entrepreneurs. The public square, after all, should be where speech is promoted — not policed.
Michael Schaus is communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.