Democrats and Media Do Not Want to Weaken Facebook, Just Commandeer its Power to Censor
"Whistleblower" Frances Haugen is a vital media and political asset because she advances their quest for greater control over online political discourse.
Much is revealed by who is bestowed hero status by the corporate media. This week's anointed avatar of stunning courage is Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager being widely hailed as a "whistleblower” for providing internal corporate documents to the Wall Street Journal relating to the various harms which Facebook and its other platforms (Instagram and WhatsApp) are allegedly causing.
The social media giant hurts America and the world, this narrative maintains, by permitting misinformation to spread (presumably more so than cable outlets and mainstream newspapers do virtually every week); fostering body image neurosis in young girls through Instagram (presumably more so than fashion magazines, Hollywood and the music industry do with their glorification of young and perfectly-sculpted bodies); promoting polarizing political content in order to keep the citizenry enraged, balkanized and resentful and therefore more eager to stay engaged (presumably in contrast to corporate media outlets, which would never do such a thing); and, worst of all, by failing to sufficiently censor political content that contradicts liberal orthodoxies and diverges from decreed liberal Truth. On Tuesday, Haugen's star turn took her to Washington, where she spent the day testifying before the Senate about Facebook's dangerous refusal to censor even more content and ban even more users than they already do.
There is no doubt, at least to me, that Facebook and Google are both grave menaces. Through consolidation, mergers and purchases of any potential competitors, their power far exceeds what is compatible with a healthy democracy. A bipartisan consensus has emerged on the House Antitrust Committee that these two corporate giants — along with Amazon and Apple — are all classic monopolies in violation of long-standing but rarely enforced antitrust laws. Their control over multiple huge platforms that they purchased enables them to punish and even destroy competitors, as we saw when Apple, Google and Amazon united to remove Parler from the internet forty-eight hours after leading Democrats demanded that action, right as Parler became the most-downloaded app in the country, or as Google suppresses Rumble videos in its dominant search feature as punishment for competing with Google's YouTube platform. Facebook and Twitter both suppressed reporting on the authentic documents about Joe Biden's business activities reported by The New York Post just weeks before the 2020 election. These social media giants also united to effectively remove the sitting elected President of the United States from the internet, prompting grave warnings from leaders across the democratic world about how anti-democratic their consolidated censorship power has become.
But none of the swooning over this new Facebook heroine nor any of the other media assaults on Facebook have anything remotely to do with a concern over those genuine dangers. Congress has taken no steps to curb the influence of these Silicon Valley giants because Facebook and Google drown the establishment wings of both parties with enormous amounts of cash and pay well-connected lobbyists who are friends and former colleagues of key lawmakers to use their D.C. influence to block reform. With the exception of a few stalwarts, neither party's ruling wing really has any objection to this monopolistic power as long as it is exercised to advance their own interests.
And that is Facebook's only real political problem: not that they are too powerful but that they are not using that power to censor enough content from the internet that offends the sensibilities and beliefs of Democratic Party leaders and their liberal followers, who now control the White House, the entire executive branch and both houses of Congress. Haugen herself, now guided by long-time Obama operative Bill Burton, has made explicitly clear that her grievance with her former employer is its refusal to censor more of what she regards as “hate, violence and misinformation.” In a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday night, Haugen summarized her complaint about CEO Mark Zuckerberg this way: he “has allowed choices to be made where the side effects of those choices are that hateful and polarizing content gets more distribution and more reach." Haugen, gushed The New York Times’ censorship-desperate tech unit as she testified on Tuesday, is “calling for regulation of the technology and business model that amplifies hate and she’s not shy about comparing Facebook to tobacco.”
Agitating for more online censorship has been a leading priority for the Democratic Party ever since they blamed social media platforms (along with WikiLeaks, Russia, Jill Stein, James Comey, The New York Times, and Bernie Bros) for the 2016 defeat of the rightful heir to the White House throne, Hillary Clinton. And this craving for censorship has been elevated into an even more urgent priority for their corporate media allies, due to the same belief that Facebook helped elect Trump but also because free speech on social media prevents them from maintaining a stranglehold on the flow of information by allowing ordinary, uncredentialed serfs to challenge, question and dispute their decrees or build a large audience that they cannot control. Destroying alternatives to their failing platforms is thus a means of self-preservation: realizing that they cannot convince audiences to trust their work or pay attention to it, they seek instead to create captive audiences by destroying or at least controlling any competitors to their pieties.
As I have been reporting for more than a year, Democrats do not make any secret of their intent to co-opt Silicon Valley power to police political discourse and silence their enemies. Congressional Democrats have summoned the CEO's of Google, Facebook and Twitter four times in the last year to demand they censor more political speech. At the last Congressional inquisition in March, one Democrat after the next explicitly threatened the companies with legal and regulatory reprisals if they did not immediately start censoring more.
A Pew survey from August shows that Democrats now overwhelmingly support internet censorship not only by tech giants but also by the government which their party now controls. In the name of "restricting misinformation,” more than 3/4 of Democrats want tech companies "to restrict false info online, even if it limits freedom of information,” and just under 2/3 of Democrats want the U.S. Government to control that flow of information over the internet:
The prevailing pro-censorship mindset of the Democratic Party is reflected not only by that definitive polling data but also by the increasingly brash and explicit statements of their leaders. At the end of 2020, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), newly elected after young leftist activists worked tirelessly on his behalf to fend off a primary challenge from the more centrist Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA), told Facebook's Zuckerberg exactly what the Democratic Party wanted. In sum, they demand more censorship:
This, and this alone, is the sole reason why there is so much adoration being constructed around the cult of this new disgruntled Facebook employee. What she provides, above all else, is a telegenic and seemingly informed “insider” face to tell Americans that Facebook is destroying their country and their world by allowing too much content to go uncensored, by permitting too many conversations among ordinary people that are, in the immortal worlds of the NYT's tech reporter Taylor Lorenz, “unfettered.”
When Facebook, Google, Twitter and other Silicon Valley social media companies were created, they did not set out to become the nation's discourse police. Indeed, they affirmatively wanted not to do that. Their desire to avoid that role was due in part to the prevailing libertarian ideology of a free internet in that sub-culture. But it was also due to self-interest: the last thing social media companies wanted to be doing is looking for ways to remove and block people from using their product and, worse, inserting themselves into the middle of inflammatory political controversies. Corporations seek to avoid angering potential customers and users over political stances, not courting that anger.
This censorship role was not one they so much sought as one that was foisted on them. It was not really until the 2016 election, when Democrats were obsessed with blaming social media giants (and pretty much everyone else except themselves) for their humiliating defeat, that pressure began escalating on these executives to start deleting content liberals deemed dangerous or false and banning their adversaries from using the platforms at all. As it always does, the censorship began by targeting widely disliked figures — Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones and others deemed “dangerous” — so that few complained (and those who did could be vilified as sympathizers of the early offenders). Once entrenched, the censorship net then predictably and rapidly spread inward (as it invariably does) to encompass all sorts of anti-establishment dissidents on the right, the left, and everything in between. And no matter how much it widens, the complaints that it is not enough intensify. For those with the mentality of a censor, there can never be enough repression of dissent. And this plot to escalate censorship pressures found the perfect vessel in this stunningly brave and noble Facebook heretic who emerged this week from the shadows into the glaring spotlight. She became a cudgel that Washington politicians and their media allies could use to beat Facebook into submission to their censorship demands.
In this dynamic we find what the tech and culture writer Curtis Yarvin calls "power leak.” This is a crucial concept for understanding how power is exercised in American oligarchy, and Yarvin's brilliant essay illuminates this reality as well as it can be described. Hyperbolically arguing that "Mark Zuckerberg has no power at all,” Yarvin points out that it may appear that the billionaire Facebook CEO is powerful because he can decide what will and will not be heard on the largest information distribution platform in the world. But in reality, Zuckerberg is no more powerful than the low-paid content moderators whom Facebook employs to hit the "delete” or "ban” button, since it is neither the Facebook moderators nor Zuckerberg himself who is truly making these decisions. They are just censoring as they are told, in obedience to rules handed down from on high. It is the corporate press and powerful Washington elites who are coercing Facebook and Google to censor in accordance with their wishes and ideology upon pain of punishment in the form of shame, stigma and even official legal and regulatory retaliation. Yarvin puts it this way:
However, if Zuck is subject to some kind of oligarchic power, he is in exactly the same position as his own moderators. He exercises power, but it is not his power, because it is not his will. The power does not flow from him; it flows through him. This is why we can say honestly and seriously that he has no power. It is not his, but someone else’s. . . .
Zuck doesn’t want to do any of this. Nor do his users particularly want it. Rather, he is doing it because he is under pressure from the press. Duh. He cannot even admit that he is under duress—or his Vietcong guards might just snap, and shoot him like the Western running-dog capitalist he is….
And what grants the press this terrifying power? The pure and beautiful power of the logos? What distinguishes a well-written poast, like this one, from an equally well-written Times op-ed? Nothing at all but prestige. In normal times, every sane CEO will comply unhesitatingly with the slightest whim of the legitimate press, just as they will comply unhesitatingly with a court order. That’s just how it is. To not call this power government is—just playing with words.
As I have written before, this problem — whereby the government coerces private actors to censor for them — is not one that Yarvin was the first to recognize. The U.S. Supreme Court has held, since at least 1963, that the First Amendment's "free speech” clause is violated when state officials issue enough threats and other forms of pressure that essentially leave the private actor with no real choice but to censor in accordance with the demands of state officials. Whether we are legally at the point where that constitutional line has been crossed by the increasingly blunt bullying tactics of Democratic lawmakers and executive branch officials is a question likely to be resolved in the courts. But whatever else is true, this pressure is very real and stark and reveals that the real goal of Democrats is not to weaken Facebook but to capture its vast power for their own nefarious ends.
There is another issue raised by this week's events that requires ample caution as well. The canonized Facebook whistleblower and her journalist supporters are claiming that what Facebook fears most is repeal or reform of Section 230, the legislative provision that provides immunity to social media companies for defamatory or other harmful material published by their users. That section means that if a Facebook user or YouTube host publishes legally actionable content, the social media companies themselves cannot be held liable. There may be ways to reform Section 230 that can reduce the incentive to impose censorship, such as denying that valuable protection to any platform that censors, instead making it available only to those who truly allow an unmoderated platform to thrive. But such a proposal has little support in Washington. What is far more likely is that Section 230 will be "modified” to impose greater content moderation obligations on all social media companies.
Far from threatening Facebook and Google, such a legal change could be the greatest gift one can give them, which is why their executives are often seen calling on Congress to regulate the social media industry. Any legal scheme that requires every post and comment to be moderated would demand enormous resources — gigantic teams of paid experts and consultants to assess "misinformation” and "hate speech” and veritable armies of employees to carry out their decrees. Only the established giants such as Facebook and Google would be able to comply with such a regimen, while other competitors — including large but still-smaller ones such as Twitter — would drown in those requirements. And still-smaller challengers to the hegemony of Facebook and Google, such as Substack and Rumble, could never survive. In other words, any attempt by Congress to impose greater content moderation obligations — which is exactly what they are threatening — would destroy whatever possibility remains for competitors to arise and would, in particular, destroy any platforms seeking to protect free discourse. That would be the consequence by design, which is why one should be very wary of any attempt to pretend that Facebook and Google fear such legislative adjustments.
There are real dangers posed by allowing companies such as Facebook and Google to amass the power they have now consolidated. But very little of the activism and anger from the media and Washington toward these companies is designed to fracture or limit that power. It is designed, instead, to transfer that power to other authorities who can then wield it for their own interests. The only thing more alarming than Facebook and Google controlling and policing our political discourse is allowing elites from one of the political parties in Washington and their corporate media outlets to assume the role of overseer, as they are absolutely committed to doing. Far from being some noble whistleblower, Frances Haugen is just their latest tool to exploit for their scheme to use the power of social media giants to control political discourse in accordance with their own views and interests.
Correction, Oct. 5, 2021, 5:59 pm ET: This article was edited to reflect that just under 2/3 of Democrats favor U.S. Government censorship of the internet in the name of fighting misinformation, not just over.
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