For years, the big social media platforms have used their market
dominance to decide who could speak and on what terms: they forced drag
queens and trans people to use their “real” names; kicked Black Lives
Matter activists off their platforms; and allowed autocratic rulers to force opposition activists to expose themselves to arrest and torture as a condition of using their platforms.
At the same time the decades-long conservative ideological attacks on antitrust law and regulation (which kicked off with Reagan
and were accelerated by his successors) have allowed the platforms to
grow to dominate our online spaces, so that exile from their environs
means all but disappearing from the public discourse.
Meanwhile, the anti-state ideology of the right means that there are no
“public spaces” on the internet: in the real world, the fact that you
can’t protest on the private property of a mall is mitigated by the fact
that you can protest on the public sidewalk in front of it. But the
right has created a digital world where all spaces are private, and the
owners of private spaces have the absolute right to set policy in those
Enter the American Conservative. Peter Van Buren, a right wing former US
State Department official, writes in the American Conservative that the
increasingly organized left has figured out how to use the lack of
public online spaces, and the strong property rights regimes in the
concentrated private spaces, to get right of right-wing speech, which
is, you know, actually true, and he says that this is alarming
because when a handful of capricious, high-handed, unaccountable,
profit-driven corporations control our speech, that is bad for a free
society, which is also true.
But then he goes off the rails. He says that:
Our protection against corporate overreach used to rely on an idea
Americans once held dear, best expressed as “I disapprove of what you
say, but I will defend your right to say it.” This ethos was core to our
democracy: everyone supports the right of others to throw their ideas
into the marketplace, where an informed people push bad ideas away with
good ones. That system more or less worked for 240 years.
This is radioactively untrue.
America is a country where union organizers would be kidnapped by mobs hired by the town’s richest citizens, beaten, covered in molten tar, dipped in feathers, and dumped at the city limits. It’s a country where white sheriffs, with the support of wealthy white townsfolk, sicced attack-dogs on peaceful black protesters. It’s a country where the Klan operated with impunity, routinely murdering and mutilating black people who voiced even the most timid and innocuous professions of equality. It’s a country where registering black people to vote could lead to your secret execution, with the killers going free.
It’s a country where business owners used their right to police speech
on private spaces to fire workers who were trade unionists, or
communists – even after laws were passed banning this practice, they
kept doing it.
It’s a country where unarmed protesters were met with tanks, teargas and militarized police.
And the thing is, that’s all terrible. America has never been a
nation where people may disagree with what you say, but defend to the
death your right to say it. Old chestnuts like, “Well, of course you
can’t shout fire in a crowded theater” come from court-cases where people were imprisoned for speaking out against a war.
America is a place where people holding establishment-friendly views
that did not threaten the super-rich would fight to the death to defend
the free speech of other people who held establishment-friendly views,
even if they disagreed about the particulars. It was also a place where
those people would find common cause in firing, arresting, beating, and
murdering people holding views that threatened the status quo and the
power of white supremacy and financial dominance.
That’s terrible. America would be a better country if we had a
marketplace of ideas, rather than a cash-money marketplace where the
more power you wielded, the more your ideas could be heard.
The American Conservative, Van Buren, and American conservatives more
generally are awakening to the problems of a fully privatized speech
regime where there is no First Amendment; they’re waking up to the
problems of market concentration; they’re waking up to the problems of
corporations acting in the interests of their shareholders without any
consideration for how that action plays out in the wider world.
People on the left are understandably relieved
that Alex Jones has lost much of his ability to torment innocent people
with disgusting lies that sell bogus vitamin supplements. But they’re
letting that glee blind them to something that the right – ironically
– is more and more aware of: that letting corporations get as large as
they want, allowing them to operate in service of profit above the
public good, and having no publicly owned alternative to concentrated
commercial giants is terrible, and it bodes very badly for anyone with unpopular political beliefs and not much political power.
It was a fluke that Jones was booted from Big Tech. He stepped over the
line again and again, until it was inevitable. But the far-right media
that’s one tiny hair less terrible than Jones will ride the line, never
crossing it, magnifying their power and influence.
Meanwhile, poor and marginalized people, who lack the resources of the
astroturf groups that front for billionaires, will be increasingly
targeted by the platforms’ willingness to police speech, and when they
get knocked off, they will find themselves with nowhere else to go.