by Robert Romano
Thanks to social media and big tech companies, finding content on the Internet that you want has never been easier. Want to find your friends and family online? Log onto Facebook. Want to see what opinion leaders or celebrities are up to? Check out Twitter. Want to find your favorite podcast? There’s Youtube or Apple. Want to go shopping or sell something? Amazon. Want to research something? Google it.
It’s all there at your fingertips, and new and old media platforms have largely been net beneficiaries in the information age. Ideally, this has created a true marketplace of ideas and is most certainly the main attraction of the Internet — that is, so long as it remains a venue open to alternative perspectives.
That is the upside. The downside comes once these companies have achieved dominant market positions and can decide to offer competitive advantages to one side of the debate over others, even on the margins. Silo viewpoints deemed undesirable to keep them inside of echo chambers. Shadowban users without them knowing it. Or, deplatform users with millions of followers with no avenue of appeal.
It’s called censorship. And more and more, conservatives are complaining that their content cannot be seen outside of their spheres of influence. Social media companies have vociferously denied that this is occurring, and with good reason. They purport that anybody can use their services to grow their influence in media on the Internet. If users realize that their experiences are being censored, then these websites and apps will cease to be useful, and usage could drop off, and with it ad dollars.
The danger is how this could be used to consolidate political power in any country, including the U.S., to create conditions conducive to one-party rule, and the marketplace might not be able to respond fast enough with an alternative to salvage a two-party system that fosters robust political competition and at least disincentivizes rampant corruption. Politics works that way. If one party goes too far and fast in moving its agenda, there can be pushback. Where it can get out of control is when those voices promoting an alternative viewpoint are suppressed.
What is scary is there is some evidence this is already occurring. U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is suing Twitter for $250 million alleging defamation was allowed to occur against him on the platform and shadowbanning him and other conservative users.
Famously, Alex Jones’ Infowars has been kicked off social media platforms, along with Laura Loomer and Milo Yiannopoulos under the guise that they were promoting supposed hate speech or violence.
The Poynter Institute has published a list of more than 500 websites in its deplatforming crosshairs — including many conservative sites like Washingtonexaminer.com, Cnsnews.com, Breitbart.com, Zerohedge.com, Dailysignal.com, Dailywire.com and so forth.
Dr. Robert Epstein, Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California, has published studies showing how Google filtering search results has a significant impact on persuading undecided voters in elections even at the Congressional level.
Whether this is because the algorithm is being manipulated by third parties to affect search results or because of a conscious decision by Google, the results are still the same.
So, right off the bat, you can readily find examples of individuals and organizations with prominent numbers of followers being banned, shadowbanned and siloed.
On one hand, a tremendous part of the problem and challenge conservatives face is they do not have nearly enough media. They need to create more of their own. But to the extent that they do have access to media channels, there is ample evidence they are being marginalized.
Of course, the First Amendment protects these websites and apps like Facebook, Twitter and Google even if they show preferences favoring one side over another, and so the danger of government censorship is far less pervasive than the reality of corporate censorship we face today. It’s still censorship.
This was one of the major reasons why the Federal Commission (FCC) led by Chairman Ajit Pai should look carefully at this issue. The FCC was founded by Congress for precisely this reason, under 47 U.S. Code § 151, “For the purpose of regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States…”
The FCC is supposed to prevent a consolidation of media ownership in this country. That’s what it’s there for.
In the past, Americans for Limited Government has opposed FCC regulation of net neutrality, and that remains true today. With 5G and Internet speeds poised to become 100 times faster than they already are, we were always confident technology would catch up to the limits of 3G and 4G infrastructure and that the fear of throttling Internet speeds would quickly become a footnote in history. In other words, that technology would rapidly overtake the stated rationale for the Obama era net neutrality regulations.
We’re not talking about throttling based on data usage. We’re talking about censorship. Again, not government censorship, but corporate censorship. We opposed ending the Department of Commerce’s contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a global monopoly that handles the entire world’s domain name system, resolving easy to remember domain names with IP addresses, for precisely this reason. Because those systems could absolutely be used to block websites in the root zone file and at least under government stewardship, the guise of the First Amendment or the possibility of rescinding the contract could serve as a counterweight in order to keep the Internet open.
Now, we must rely on antitrust laws that have been so watered down over the years they have almost no bearing on the media reality we face today. If so, and if antitrust has been too defanged to be effective in this environment, then the FCC may be the last game in town. What that means remains to be seen, but in the least we need to have this discussion.
Free speech is messy. It means that ideas that may not be popular to the vast majority of people can still get a platform and a large following. In a country of millions and millions of people that is inevitable. We are far better off as a society with an open and free marketplace of ideas, even if it includes some unpopular ideas, than one that is policed by a few extremely powerful corporate overlords.
Today, there is such a consolidation of power on the Internet that were these companies ever turned toward the aim of consolidating one-party rule in the U.S., it is debatable whether markets and alternatives would be able to effectively counter it before it was too late. It is a challenge but not one conservatives who believe in limited government should shy away from, because limited government if its advocates in the virtual marketplace of ideas we now rely on are silenced. For our representative form of government to thrive, we need competition in the marketplace of ideas, not censorship.
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Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.