The interplay between the First Amendment and corporations like Twitter, Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook is the most significant challenge to free speech in our lifetimes. Pretending a corporation with the reach to influence elections is just another place that sells stuff is to pretend the role of debate in a free society is outdated.
From the day the Founders wrote the 1A until very recently no entity existed that could censor at scale other than the government. It was difficult for one company, never mind one man, to silence an idea or promote a false story in America, never mind the entire world. That was the stuff of Bond villains.
The arrival of global technology controlled by mega-corporations like Twitter brought first the ability the control speech and soon after the willingness. The rules are their rules, so we see the permanent banning of a president for whom some 70 million Americans voted from tweeting to his 88 million followers (ironically the courts earlier claimed it was unconstitutional for the president to block those who wanted to follow him.) Meanwhile the same censors allowed the Iranian and Chinese governments (along with the president’s critics) to speak freely. For these companies violence in one form is a threat to democracy while similar violence is valorized under a different color flag.
The year 2020 also saw the arrival of a new tactic by global media, sending a story down the memory hole to influence an election. The contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, which strongly suggest illegal behavior on his part and unethical behavior by his father the president, were purposefully and effectively kept from the majority of voters. It was no longer for a voter to agree or disagree, it was now know and judge yourself or remain ignorant and just vote anyway.
Try an experiment. Google “Peter Van Buren” with the quotes. Most of you will see on the first page of results articles I wrote four years ago for outlets like The Nation and Salon. Almost none of you will see the scores of columns I wrote for The American Conservative over the past four years. Google buries them.
The ability of a handful of people nobody voted for to control the mass of public discourse has never been clearer. It represents a stunning centralization of power. It is this power which negates the argument of “why not start your own web forum.” Someone did until Amazon withdrew its server support, and Apple and Google banned the Parler app.
The same thing happened to The Daily Stormer, driven offline through a coordinated effort by tech companies, and 8Chan, deplatformed by Cloudflare. Amazon partner GoDaddy deplatformed the world’s largest gun forum AR15. Tech giants have also killed off local newspapers and other forums by gobbling up ad revenues. The companies are not, in @jack’s words, “one small part of the larger public conversation.”
The tech companies’ logic in destroying Parler was particularly evil — either start censoring like we do (“moderation”) or we shut you down. Parler allowing ideas and people banned by the others is what brought its demise. Amazon, et al, brought their power to censor to another company. The tech companies also said while Section 230 says we are not publishers, we just provide the platform, if Parler did not exercise editorial control to tech’s satisfaction it was finished. Even if Parler comes back online it will live only at the pleasure of the powerful.
Since democracy was created it has required a public forum, from the Acropolis to the town square on down. That place exists today, for better or worse, across global media. It is this seriousness of the threat to free speech that requires us to move beyond platitudes like “it’s not a violation of free speech, just a breach of the terms of service!” People once said “I’d like to help you vote ladies, but the Constitution specifically refers to men, my hands are tied.” That’s the side of history some are standing on.
This new reality must be the starting point, not the end point of discussions on the First Amendment and global media. Facebook, et al, have evolved into something new which can reach beyond their own corporate borders, beyond the idea of a company that just sells soap or cereal. Never mind being beyond the vision of the Founders when they wrote the 1A, it is hard to imagine Thomas Jefferson endorsing having a college dropout determine what the president can say to millions of Americans. The magic game play of words — it’s a company so it does not matter — is no longer enough to save us from drowning.
Tech companies currently work in casual consultation with one another, taking turns being the first to ban something so the others can follow. The next step is when a decision by one company ripples instantly across to the others, and then down to their contractors and supplies as a requirement to continue business. The decision by AirBnB to ban users for their political stance could cross platforms automatically so that same person could not fly, use a credit card, etc., essentially a non-person unable to participate in society beyond taking a walk. And why not fully automate the task, destroying people who use a certain hashtag, or like an offending tweet? Perhaps create a youth organization called Twitter Jugend to watch over media 24/7 and report dangerous ideas? A nation of high school hall monitors.
Consider linkages to the surveillance technology we idolize when it helps arrest the “right” people. So with the Capitol riots we fetishize how cell phone data was used to place people on site, coupled with facial recognition run against images pulled off social media. Throw in the calls from the media for people to turn in friends and neighbors to the FBI, alongside amateur efforts across Twitter and even Bumble to “out” participants. The goal was to jail people if possible, but most loyalists seemed equally satisfied if they could cause someone to lose their job. Tech is blithely providing these tools to users it approves of, knowing full well how they will be used. Orwellian? Orwell was an amateur.
There are legal arguments to extend limited 1A protections to social media. Section 230 could be amended. However, given Democrats benefit disproportionately from corporate censorship and current Democratic control of the government, no legislative solution appears likely. Those people care far more for the rights of some of its citizens (trans people seem popular now, it used to be disabled folks) then the most basic right for all the people.
They rely on the fact it is professional suicide today to defend all speech on principle. It is easy in divided America to claim the struggle against fascism (racism, misogyny, white supremacy, whatever) overrules the old norms. And they think they can control the beast.
But imagine someone’s views, which today match @jack and Zuck’s, change. Imagine Zuck finds religion and uses all of his resources to ban legal abortion. Consider a change of technology which allows a different company, run by someone who thinks like the MyPillow Guy, replacing Google in dictating what you can read. As one former ACLU director explained “Speech restrictions are like poison gas. They seem like they’re a great weapon when you’ve got your target in sight. But then the wind shifts.”
The election of 2020, when they hid the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop from voters, and the election’s aftermath, when they banned the president and other conservative voices, was the coming-of-age moment, the proof of concept for media giants that they could operate behind the illusion of democracy.
Hope rests with the Supreme Court expanding the First Amendment to social media, as it did when it grew the 1A to cover all levels of government, down to the hometown mayor, even though the Constitution specifically only mentions Congress. The Court has long acknowledged the flexibility of the 1A in general, expanding it over the years to acts of “speech” as disparate as nudity and advertising. But don’t expect much change any time soon. Landmark decisions on speech, like those on other civil rights, tend to be more evolutionary in line with society’s changes than revolutionary.
It is sad that many of the same people who quoted that “First they came for…” poem over Trump’s Muslim Ban are now gleefully supporting social media’s censorship of conservative voices. The funny part is both Trump and Twitter claim what they did was for peoples safety. One day people will wake up and realize it doesn’t matter who is doing the censoring, the government or Amazon. It’s all just censoring.
What a sad little argument “But you violated the terms of service nyah nyah!” is going to be then.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.