Forcing DiDi and Alibaba to toe the Communist Party line may help Xi build a police state but will stall the nation’s dynamic industry.
“Investors have to rethink the entire China structure,” David Kotok of Cumberland Advisers said last week. For Hong Kong, the One Country, Two Systems principle was “dead.” As for the crackdown on some of the nation’s tech giants, the Beijing government’s treatment of Alibaba “is not a one-off. Neither is DiDi. Everything China touches must be viewed with suspicion.”
Wait, you’re saying that investing in the other side in the early phase of Cold War II might have been a bad idea? You’re telling me that “long totalitarianism” was not a smart trade?
For the past three years, I have been trying to persuade anyone who would listen that “Chimerica” — the symbiotic economic relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America, which I first wrote about in 2007 — is dead. The experience has taught me how hard it can be for an author to kill one of his own ideas and replace it with a new one. The facts change, but people’s minds — not so much.
Chimerica was the dominant feature of the global economic landscape from China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 to the global financial crisis that began in 2008. (I never expected the relationship to last, which was why I and my co-author Moritz Schularick came up with the word: Chimerica was a pun on “chimera.”) At some point after that, as I have argued in Bloomberg Opinionpreviously, Cold War II began.
Unlike with a “hot” war, it is hard to say exactly when a cold war breaks out. But I think Cold War II was already underway — at least as far as the Chinese leader Xi Jinping was concerned — even before former President Donald Trump started imposing tariffs on Chinese imports in 2018. By the end of that year, the U.S. and China were butting heads over so many issues that cold war began to look like a relatively good outcome, if the most likely alternative was hot war.
Ideological division? Check, as Xi Jinping explicitly prohibited Western ideas in Chinese education and reasserted the relevance of Marxism-Leninism. Economic competition? Check, as China’s high growth rate continued to narrow the gap between Chinese and U.S. gross domestic product. A technological race? Check, as China systematically purloined intellectual property to challenge the U.S. in strategic areas such as artificial intelligence. Geopolitical rivalry? Check, as China brazenly built airbases and other military infrastructure in the South China Sea. Rewriting history? Check, as the new Chinese Academy of History ensures that the party’s official narrative appears everywhere from textbooks to museums to social media. Espionage? Check. Propaganda? Check. Arms race? Check.
A classic expression of the cold war atmosphere was provided on July 1 by Xi’s speech to mark the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party: The Chinese people “will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or enslave us,” he told a large crowd in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. “Anyone who tries to do so shall be battered and bloodied from colliding with a great wall of steel forged by more than 1.4 billion Chinese people using flesh and blood.” This is language the like of which we haven’t heard from a Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
Most Americans could see this — public sentiment turned sharply negative, with three quarters of people expressing an unfavorable view of China in recent surveys. Many politicians saw it — containing China became just about the only bipartisan issue in Washington, with candidate Joe Biden seeking to present himself to voters as tougher on China than Trump. Yet somehow the very obvious trend toward cold war was ignored in the place that had most to lose from myopia. I am talking about Wall Street. Even as China was ground zero for a global pandemic, crushed political freedom in Hong Kong and incarcerated hundreds of thousands of its own citizens in Xinjiang, the money kept flowing from New York to Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
According to the Rhodium Group, China’s gross flows of foreign domestic investment to the U.S. in 2019 totaled $4.8 billion. But gross U.S. FDI flows to China were $13.3 billion. The pandemic did not stop the influx of American money into China. Last November, JPMorgan Chase & Co. spent $1 billion buying full ownership of its Chinese joint venture. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley became controlling owners of their Chinese securities ventures. Just about every major name in American finance did some kind of China deal last year.
And it wasn’t only Wall Street. PepsiCo Inc. spent $705 million on a Chinese snack brand. Tesla Inc. ramped up its Chinese production. There were also massive flows of U.S. capital into Chinese onshore bonds. Chinese equities, too, found American buyers. “From an AI chip designer whose founders worked at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to Jack Ma’s fast-growing and highly lucrative fintech unicorn Ant Group and cash cow mineral-water bottler Nongfu Spring Co., President Xi Jinping’s China has plenty to offer global investors,” my Bloomberg opinion colleague Shuli Ren wrote last September.
Recent months have brought a painful reality check. On July 2, Chinese regulators announced an investigation into data security concerns at DiDi Global Inc., a ride-hailing group, just two days after its initial public offering. DiDi had raised $4.4 billion in the biggest Chinese IPO in the U.S. since Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s in 2014. No sooner had investors snapped up the stock than the Chinese internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, said the company was suspected of “serious violations of laws and regulations in collecting and using personal information.”
The cyberspace agency then revealed that it was also investigating two other U.S.-listed Chinese companies: hiring app BossZhipin, which listed in New York as Kanzhun Ltd. on June 11, and Yunmanman and Huochebang, two logistics and truck-booking apps run by Full Truck Alliance Co., which listed on June 22. Inevitably, this nasty news triggered a selloff in Chinese tech stocks. It also led several other Chinese tech companies abruptly to abandon their plans for U.S. IPOs, including fitness app Keep, China’s biggest podcasting platform, Ximalaya, and the medical data company LinkDoc Technology Ltd.
To add to the maelstrom, on Thursday Senators Bill Hagerty, a Tennessee Republican, and Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, called on the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate whether DiDi had misled U.S. investors ahead of its IPO. Also last week, U.S. tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google came under increased pressure from Hong Kong and mainland officials over doxxing, the practice of publishing private or identifying information about an individual online.
For several years, I have been told by numerous supposed experts on U.S.-China relations a) that a cold war is impossible when two economies are as intertwined as China’s and America’s and b) that decoupling is not going to happen because it is in nobody’s interest. But strategic decoupling has been China’s official policy for some time now. Last year’s crackdown on financial technology firms, which led to the sudden shelving of the Ant Group Co. IPO, was just one of many harbingers of last week’s carnage.
The proximate consequences are clear. U.S.-listed Chinese firms will face growing regulatory pressure from Beijing’s new rules on variable interest entities as well as from U.S. delisting rules.
The VIE structure has long been used by almost all China’s major tech companies to bypass China’s foreign investment restrictions. However, on Feb. 7, the State Council’s Anti-Monopoly Committee issued new guidelines covering variable interest entities for the first time. Recognizing them as legal entities subject to domestic anti-monopoly laws has allowed regulators to impose anticompetition penalties on major VIEs, including Alibaba, Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Meituan. This new framework substantially increases risks to foreign investors holding American deposit receipts in the tech companies’ wholly foreign-owned enterprises. For example, Beijing could conceivably force VIEs to breach their contracts with their foreign-owned entities. In one scenario, subsidiaries of a Chinese variable interest entity that are deemed by Beijing to be involved in processing and storing critical data could be spun out from the VIE — just as Alibaba was reportedly forced to spin out payments subsidiary Alipay in 2010.
The stakes are high. There are currently 244 U.S.-listed Chinese firms with a total market capitalization of around $1.8 trillion, equivalent to almost 4% of the capitalization of the U.S. stock market.
A federal appellate court’s decision to rehear a case in which a controversial provision of 1996’s Communications Decency Act protecting Big Tech firms from civil suits because they are “distributors of content” rather than “publishers” is giving people hope the recent wave of Internet censorship may soon end.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second said July 16 it would rehear the arguments “en banc” following a ruling by a three-judge panel that upheld a lower court’s decision in Dorman v Vimeo, in which it was argued the tech platform was insulated from liability after it terminated the video streaming feed of a group posting videos of individuals saying they’d abandoned homosexuality to pursue a Christian way of living.
Vimeo, the Epoch Times reported, argued successfully its terms of service agreement prohibited the streaming of materials promoting “conversion therapy,” a controversial technique legislators in several blue states are currently trying to ban, especially for children under the age of 18. Others including the plaintiff argue however that the tech firm’s action is censorship and is damaging in both the legal and common sense of the word.
Robert Tyler, general counsel for the Advocates for Faith & Freedom said the decision to have the appeal reargued in front of the entire court puts the immunity provision of Section 230 “in the crosshairs of judicial review.”
“Section 230 was not intended to give Big Tech the right to exclude persons from their platform just because the customer is black, Muslim, white, Christian, homosexual, or formerly homosexual. That is plain invidious discrimination,” Tyler said.
The case is important because the digital age has moved the public square from inside the local community to well out into cyberspace. Facebook and Twitter are now the host of the national conversation, fueled by information people gather by using search engines like Google. This is a new reality, leaving more than a few conservatives fearful their opinions and publications and websites are being censored by the “woke” individuals inside the Big tech companies that make decisions about search engine rankings and what can be seen.
The appellate court’s latest action suggests Section 230, which many of its critics believe is the legal justification for online censorship, may not long survive. It is rare for an entire appellate court to rehear a case just to reaffirm a three-judge panel’s decision. Even if it doesn’t, however, those who follow tech platforms and the laws that govern them say there is no guarantee the censoring of individual messages, the de-platforming of people like former President Donald J. Trump, or the termination of services would come to an end if this one part of the CDA is ruled unconstitutional.
Without Section 230 protection – or something like it – platforms and Internet service companies might someday be held responsible for what appears on screens and servers in much the same way the publishers of newspapers are responsible for what appears in print. Not that it would get anyone very far. The bar for proving damages in cases where libel or defamation are alleged was high even before the United States Supreme Court sent it into the stratosphere in its 1964’s Times v Sullivan decision.
Now, the standard of proof in such cases is so rigorous it is rarely met and, even if it is, the requirements involved in proving damage are so onerous as to hardly be a deterrent to sloppy reporting, deliberate maligning, and censorship.
Trump’s recently announced class-action suit against Big Tech CEOs over his de-platforming may be another matter. He contends his first amendment rights were violated following the disruption inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by these companies acting as agents of the federal government. If he can prove that to be the case, it invokes constitutional scrutiny and potentially tilts the outcome in Trump’s favor.
Ultimately, the court will probably rule in a way that protects the most speech for the most people. The first amendment is an American absolute, not necessarily applicable in all cases – the government can’t imprison me over what I tell my children – but we generally believe as a country that even private institutions should give the amendment due deference. If Big Tech can be shown to have failed in this regard, the consequences could be interesting.
Big Tech is not fighting fair in its push back against former President Donald J. Trump’s campaign to prevent it from censoring conservative opinions and opinion leaders, the American Conservative Union said, citing the recent suspension of its network on YouTube, an internet platform used for video sharing as a prime example of its misconduct.
The ACU, which is the primary sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference called the recent removal by YouTube of a recent episode of its “America UnCanceled” posted on its CPAC NOW page censorship.
“YouTube censored CPAC because we stood with former President Donald Trump on his lawsuit against Big Tech,” ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp said in a release, calling the action “another example of Big Tech censoring content with which they disagree in order to promote the political positions they favor.”
The episode in question included coverage of the former president’s attempt to mount a class action suit against tech platforms including Google, YouTube’s parent company. The ACU is a party to the suit, which is being brought on the former president’s behalf by the America First Policy Institute, a group he formed shortly after he left office.
Trump spoke Sunday in Dallas, Texas to the most recent CPAC gathering. That speech also could not be seen on the CPAC NOW YouTube page due to a one-week ban on posting the platform imposed on the organization when it removed the program, the ACU said.
When imposing the ban, the ACU said YouTube cited “medical misinformation” related to COVID-19 conveyed by the program as the reason for it but did not state specifically what the so-called misinformation was. In a statement, the group said it believed Trump’s reference to the possible therapeutic value of hydroxychloroquine as documented in what the ACU described as “sound medical research conducted by the Smith Center for Infectious Diseases & Urban Health and Saint Barnabas Medical Center” may have prompted the internet platform to take the action it did.
The use of hydroxychloroquine to prevent or treat the novel coronavirus, which Trump often promoted while president, is controversial in many political, editorial, and medical circles.
“It is clear that YouTube censored CPAC because we stood with former President Donald Trump on his lawsuit against Big Tech,” said ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp. “This is yet another example of Big Tech censoring content with which they disagree in order to promote the political positions they favor.”
In his remarks to the Dallas confab, Trump called the way Big Tech handles free speech issues, particularly expressions of opinion that conflict with the values of the founders of the major tech platforms “unlawful,” “unconstitutional” and “completely un-American.”
Trump used the speech to continue as well his crusade for an audit of the 2020 presidential election results which, he maintains, was tainted by fraudulent ballots. “The truth was covered up, and it had a giant impact on the election,” he said. “This must never happen to another party’s presidential candidate again. We are the laughingstock of the world.”
The advertised purpose of the “Endless Frontier Act” is to increase high tech competition with China. This, of course, is a goal that every American should be able to get behind. However, the advertised purpose of the bill, as laudable as it may be, is not actually what the bill will do. In other words, the “Endless Frontier Act” was sold under false pretenses and using fabricated promises.
If the Senate were serious about helping America win the high tech competition with China, it would do a number of important things, including, but not limited to: (1) protect our nation’s intellectual property from theft and abuse by the Chinese; (2) make our tax code more competitive; (3) allow research and development costs to be deducted more easily thus encouraging capital investment in high tech solutions; (4) review and reform our regulatory regime that in many cases is outdated and hindering the development of new technologies and making us less competitive.
But the Senate isn’t considering any of that. Instead, their so-called plan is to spend about $110 billion in taxpayer dollars via government grants to promote new technologies to be administered by the National Science Foundation. In other words, a government agency with a horrific record of waste, fraud and abuse is going to decide what technologies look most promising and then hand out taxpayer dollars to give them a boost. This sounds like the Solyndra scandal on steroids.
So in an era when our national debt has been rapidly increasing at unsustainable rates, we are going to borrow even more money from China and become even more indebted to China — all for the purpose of being more competitive with China. Let that sink in.
But the problem doesn’t end there. The truth is the National Science Foundation (NSF) has a horrible record of waste. The NSF has funded a project to develop a robot that could fold a towel in 25 minutes. A child could fold a whole load of towels in 25 minutes, but for this stupidity you paid $1.5 million. They’ve funded studies of shrimp running on a miniature treadmill. That wasted $500,000 of your hard earned dollars. They’ve spent millions studying what motivates individuals to make political donations. They’ve spent millions studying if athlete’s perception that the basketball rim is as large as a hula-hoop, or that a baseball is as large as a grapefruit, or a golf hole appeared as big as a manhole cover impacts the athlete’s performance.
As Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) highlighted on the floor of the Senate, the NSF spent $700,000 that had been allotted to study autism to listen to a tape of Neil Armstrong’s first moon walk. They wanted to determine if he said “one small step for man …” or “one small step for a man …” It took them a year and $700,000 of your money to determine that they couldn’t tell. And that was money that was supposed to be spent on autism. The NSF also spent half a million dollars developing a climate change themed video game to help children feel more alarmed.
Government is inherently wasteful. For example, our government spent over $40 million building a natural gas station to refuel cars that run on natural gas in Afghanistan to help them reduce their carbon footprint. Yet Afghanistan is a nation where the annual income is about $800 and often cook their food on open fires, and few drive any sort of car, much less a natural gas powered car. Any high schooler could have told you that building a natural gas station in a nation that doesn’t have many cars is a dumb idea.
Government has funded studying whether you and I are more or less likely to eat food that has been sneezed or coughed on by someone else. You and I could answer that question for free. We’d prefer food that hasn’t been sneezed on — even before the pandemic. But government bureaucrats spent $2 million to get the same answer.
So now we are going to rely on these same government bureaucrats to make sure we compete in the high tech arena with the Chinese and we will borrow the money that these bureaucrats decide to spend from the Chinese. What could possibly go wrong?!
I have grown to expect liberals to gladly fund such utter foolishness from our paychecks. But it isn’t just them, there were 19 Republicans who voted for this insanity: Blunt (MO), Capito (WV), Collins (ME), Cornyn (TX), Crapo (ID), Daines (MT), Graham (SC), Grassley (IA), McConnell (KY), Murkowski (AL), Portman (OH), Risch (ID), Romney (UT), Rounds (SD), Sasse (NE), Sullivan (AK), Tillis (NC), Wicker (MS), and Young (IN).
Those who voted for this bill will undoubtedly defend their vote telling you that they want America to compete and win against China in the high tech arena. We all would like that! But let’s try something novel. Let’s do things that would actually help our innovators innovate; and help our businesses and industries compete and win. Also let’s not put a wasteful and often silly government agency in charge of the program. Instead, let’s unleash America’s entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. And let’s not borrow the money from the very nation we claim to be trying to out compete.
By resisting censorship from the government, corporations, or cancel mobs, we reaffirm the value of the freedoms won and cherished in centuries past.
As I wrote in a preceding essay, the First Amendment was written to limit the government’s power. In the 18th century, only the state was conceived as possibly wielding the power to keep free people from speaking their minds. Thus, if maintaining a free people requires free speech, it followed that the government must be kept from controlling speech. For a long time, no more was necessary, but that would change.
As the United States grew in population and prosperity, there was very little agitation against business. There did not need to be. Most businesses were small affairs, owned by one man or one family, employing a handful of workers. Relations between labor and management were dealt with between individuals.
n 1854, Abraham Lincoln summarized this small-scale economy, speaking of a system in which a man “may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system.”
Yet as corporations grew in size and power, that “true system” changed. Instead of one apprentice negotiating with an owner, a company that employed thousands would tell workers what they would get: take it or leave it.
In response, workers began to join together in trade unions, leveling the playing field, although diminishing their own independence. The balance between workers and management was restored, but the growing power of corporations still overpowered that of individual consumers.
Antitrust and utility laws were the response, but none of this much affected the realm of free speech. There was no news monopoly — newspapers were more plentiful than today — and restrictions on the new technology of radio came from the government, not the station owners. The biggest threat to the practice of free speech remained the state.
Although the two streams of jurisprudence here — anti-monopoly and free speech — did not much overlap in the early twentieth century, some of the same great thinkers were doing work in both. Foremost among these was Louis Brandeis, who joined the Supreme Court in 1916.
Brandeis was a progressive who saw Big Government and Big Business as equally threatening to the average American. Although he focused more on the growth of corporate power in his days as a private lawyer, Brandeis saw the danger in the government becoming too powerful. His solution was to resist consolidation in both regards — keep businesses small and local, and the government could stay small, too.
In regards to free speech, Brandeis also led the resistance to censorship, although often unsuccessfully. While American citizens were the freest in the world in their right to speak and publish, limits remained.
The so-called “Red Scare” that followed communist revolutions in Europe led governments to clamp down on people’s right to advocate socialist ideas in America. In Whitney v. California in 1924, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to one such law. Brandeis was in the minority, but Whitney soon became one of the rare cases more famous for the dissent than for the opinion of the court. Brandeis wrote:
Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.
Brandeis’s words remain one of the great summaries of the custom and law of free speech in America and follows the line of thinking started by Milton and Locke. In 1969, the Supreme Court adopted Brandeis’s ideas and overturned Whitney.
Since then, the government’s attempts to restrict free speech have mostly been rebuffed. Some efforts, like the censorship at issue in the 2010 case of Citizens United v. FEC, nearly succeeded, but most failed and failed quickly. The struggle for free speech in law trends toward greater liberty.
Today, however, something novel is happening in America: private actors have become a greater threat to free speech than the government is. Part of that comes from a laudable achievement — we have tamed free speech’s historical foe, the state. But part also comes from the rise of new means of communication that not only displace the old but are uniquely susceptible to monopolization in a way the old media were not.
That means that for the first time, corporate power might be a greater threat to our rights — especially our right to free speech — than the power wielded by the state. This accounts in part for the recent resurgence in antitrust advocacy.
Not long ago, there was considerable diversity not only in the sources of news and entertainment but also in the distribution of such things. Not only have the sources of news been subject to consolidation, but they have become separated from the methods by which they reach us. This vertical dis-integration might be seen as an antitrust success, except that the distribution methods are even more consolidated than the news sources.
The “distribution sources” in question are the social media giants of Facebook and Twitter, along with less powerful players in the field like Reddit and LinkedIn. Instagram and WhatsApp are also cited as delivery methods for news, but it does little good to mention them since they are both owned by Facebook. Consolidation across Silicon Valley has narrowed the real players in Big Tech to about half a dozen: Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft among them.
As far as free speech is concerned, some of these players are more dangerous than others, but the interaction among them is also a problem. Six big technological competitors might look like a healthy industry, but it is an illusion. While they clash at times, these Big Six have divided up the tech world much as the 19th-century colonial powers divided up the globe. Spheres of influence are mutually respected and the political aims of each align with the others.
First, the social media giants established monopolies in their respective fields. As companies grow in power, they exert control over their marketplaces. They evaded detection in doing so because their monopolies are different from those of the past.
What they monopolize is not a commercial product like Standard Oil’s monopoly on kerosene. Their monopoly is on access to a thing they created and that, outside of their network, cannot exist. As I wrote in the Washington Examiner last year:
There is no place to tweet except Twitter; there is no way to create Facebook posts outside Facebook. If Facebook or Twitter delete your posts or restrict your account, that network is closed to you, and each is a network that increasingly dominates the exchange of ideas. Even beyond the market for news and commentary, access to social media for businesses (especially Facebook) can be a make-or-break proposition.
The monopoly is on each social media company’s network, and the danger is in our increasing reliance on those networks to convey ideas. By 2019, a majority of Americans said they often or sometimes got their news over social media, and the number increases every year.
Unlike old-fashioned monopolies, social media companies use their power not only to exclude competitors but also to exclude customers with whom they disagree. AT&T wanted to control all telephony, but at least they only wanted your money. Facebook and Twitter also want to limit what you say, the equivalent of a telephone operator breaking in to shut down phone calls that their bosses find distasteful.
The Department of Justice shattered AT&T’s monopoly in the 1980s, breaking the company into several “Baby Bells.” The result was cheaper, better telephone service for everyone.
But that precise solution will not work for social media. No one is concerned about the price of a service that is given away for free, and the quality of the apps was never the problem. This network, and equal access to it, is the issue. Destroying that network would make service worse, not better. Moreover, it misses the point.
The intersection of monopoly power with free speech is something new. Even beyond the threat of exclusion from a social media company’s network, the collusion among the networks further stifles free expression. Consider the treatment of a rival social network.
In reaction to Twitter shutting down accounts with whose content it disagreed, two entrepreneurs launched an alternative site, Gab, in 2016. It went public in 2017 and seemed to offer the traditional alternative for dissatisfaction with a business: taking your business elsewhere. If the dispute with Twitter had been a traditional one, such as price or quality, that would have solved the problem.
But the nature of Twitter’s monopoly worked against Gab. Twitter users who had not been banned were reluctant to leave the network, because as unhappy as they were with it, it still offered the best forum for reaching a mass audience. Some maintained accounts at both sites, but only the banned — those who had no other option — were active users at Gab. Google decided it was a hate forum and removed it from their Play Store. Apple had never allowed it in the first place.
Gab was then restricted only to people extremely motivated to seek it out, and it became a deeply unpleasant echo chamber. When it emerged that the perpetrator of the 2018 mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue was an active Gab user, the site was forever known as the home of murderous extremists. The providers that hosted them terminated their arrangements, forcing it further underground. The same process played out with Parler in 2020, and it will play out again for the next would-be Twitter competitor.
Mainstream opinion is unbothered. Few had heard of Gab or Parler, which they could not find in their phone’s app stores, and many who were aware of it associated it with Nazis. Shutting them down was good riddance to bad rubbish.
Those few who raised free speech concerns were told to read the law, as though that is all there is to our ancient liberty. Recent episodes of tech censorship have involved a larger combination of tech companies and taken in a larger swath of users — including a former American president.
The drive to stifle speech is not limited to social media. Other tech monopolies have flexed their muscles. Amazon, which controls a majority of book sales in the United States, has started deciding which kinds of books it will allow. Anything that explores sexual orientation or gender dysphoria as mental illnesses is now forbidden. Tweets and Facebook posts on the subject are also likely to be censored if they voice the “wrong” opinions.
If free speech is necessary to enable individuals to discover virtue and choose their leaders, then monopoly censorship is just as harmful as government censorship. Even beyond the specific harm of stifling free expression, it does harm to the idea of free speech itself.
Legalistic denials from Big Tech supporters — “it’s not censorship if it’s not the government!” — miss the point. By allowing continued monopolies over segments of the public square and acquiescing in a restriction of free thought there, we erode the principle of free speech while piously upholding the laws that do nothing against this new threat.
As long as people believe in free speech, it will endure. According to a 2020 poll by Pew, a majority of Americans see the social media threat for what it is: censorship. That is good news. People are not distracted by the distinction of government and non-government; they see a powerful force trying to muzzle them and do not like it. The people understand that this right belongs to them and will resist anyone who tries to take it away.
The bad news is that such sentiments are declining. Americans, especially the young, increasingly are intolerant of speech that they hate. Instead of the liberty and courage that Brandeis extolled, they seek to decide public questions with private force. Milton and Locke would recognize the methods from their own times, although the actors and questions debated have changed.
That same 2020 Pew poll showed a majority of Democrats endorsing social media companies’ labeling of “inaccurate” tweets and posts. Polling by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that same year finds that significant percentages of college students support suppressing unpopular speech through heckler’s veto (27 percent) or blocking entry to an event (11 percent). Only 4 percent of those surveyed claimed that it was acceptable to use violence to suppress offensive speech, but that is still too many.
We all have reason to doubt the accuracy of polling after the failures of the last few years, but there can be no doubt that the principle of free expression is under renewed threat. Looking at that threat requires reacquainting ourselves with the history of free speech and monopolies. Our forefathers fought censorship and fought monopolistic abuses, but political battles are rarely won for all time. These two are back, joined up in novel fashion, but no different than what came before.
The lessons of Milton, Locke, Bastiat, Lincoln, and Brandeis must guide a new generation to protect our ancient freedoms. If we fail, those freedoms will fade from memory and their protection in law will fade with them. We may vote for legislators, but few of us will ever directly influence the words of a law.
In the custom that underpins the law, though, we all have a role to play. By resisting censorship from the government, corporations, or cancel mobs, we remind the world of the value of the freedoms won and cherished in centuries past, and further reinforce them for the challenges to yet come.
In a blistering dissent, Judge Laurence Silberman said The New York Times and Washington Post are 'Democratic Party broadsheets.'
The control of major media by one political party is a dangerous threat to the country, a federal judge warned in a blistering dissent that called for courts to revisit libel laws that generally protect the press from being held liable for their reporting.
“It should be borne in mind that the first step taken by any potential authoritarian or dictatorial regime is to gain control of communications, particularly the delivery of news,” wrote Judge Laurence Silberman of the D.C. Circuit for the Court of Appeals. “It is fair to conclude, therefore, that one-party control of the press and media is a threat to a viable democracy.”
Silberman argued that it’s time for courts to revisit New York Times v. Sullivan, which has shaped press law in favor of media outlets for more than five decades. The New York Times and the Washington Post “are virtually Democratic Party broadsheets. And the news section of The Wall Street Journal leans in the same direction,” Judge Silberman wrote in his March 19 dissent.
He said that orientation also controls the Associated Press and most large papers in the country, including the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, and Boston Globe. “Nearly all television—network and cable—is a Democratic Party trumpet,” Judge Silberman added.
Silicon Valley also has “enormous influence” over the distribution of news and it “similarly filters news delivery in ways favorable to the Democratic Party,” wrote Judge Silberman, highlighting the shocking suppression of stories about Joe Biden and his family when he was running for president.
In that case, Twitter and Facebook censored media outlets that reported accurately about the Biden family’s dealing with foreign entities. Twitter suspended users, including sitting White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, for merely sharing accurate information, and prevented people from sharing the information privately on its platform. Facebook said it would censor coverage of the Biden family corruption pending a “fact-check,” an unprecedented privilege given to Biden in the closing days of one of the closest presidential elections in history.
Only a few major media outlets are not controlled by the left, Silberman noted, citing Fox News, where this reporter is a contributor, the New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal. “It should be sobering for those concerned about news bias that these institutions are controlled by a single man and his son. Will a lone holdout remain in what is otherwise a frighteningly orthodox media culture? After all, there are serious efforts to muzzle Fox News,” he wrote. CNN hosts and other leftist activsts are currently on a campaign to deplatform their rival.
“Admittedly, a number of Fox’s commentators lean as far to the right as the commentators and reporters of the mainstream outlets lean to the left,” Silberman wrote in a footnote, in a dig at reporters inserting their extreme partisan views into news stories.
A New York Supreme Court judge last week ruled against The New York Times’ effort to get a defamation suit against it dismissed. The Times had said that its reporters were inserting opinion into news stories, and that opinions are not actionable for defamation. The argument didn’t hold sway with the judge, who critiqued the blending of news and opinion in purported news stories.
Another footnote critiqued the tepid response of some to “big tech’s behavior” censoring conservative speech. Silberman called repression of political speech in large institutions with market power “fundamentally un-American.”
“Some emphasize these companies are private and therefore not subject to the First Amendment. Yet—even if correct— it is not an adequate excuse for big tech’s bias. The First Amendment is more than just a legal provision: It embodies the most important value of American Democracy. Repression of political speech by large institutions with market power therefore is—I say this advisedly—fundamentally un-American,” Silberman wrote.
He then cited Tim Groseclose’s book, “Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind,” which empirically argued that media bias even a decade ago gave Democrat candidates an 8-10 point advantage. “And now, a decade after this book’s publication, the press and media do not even pretend to be neutral news services.” Silberman noted.
“The First Amendment guarantees a free press to foster a vibrant trade in ideas. But a biased press can distort the marketplace. And when the media has proven its willingness—if not eagerness—to so distort, it is a profound mistake to stand by unjustified legal rules that serve only to enhance the press’ power,” Silberman concluded.
The movie that couldn’t be made from the story that couldn’t be told (because of mainstream and social media suppression ahead of the November 2020 election) is soon coming to a theater near you. Filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney have announced they’ll begin shooting the Hunter Biden story – in all its embarrassing glory – sometime in the summer of 2021.
The film, tentatively titled “My Son Hunter” will, the website says, “tell the story of the Biden Family Corruption through the eyes of Hunter Biden. You will be shocked by what you see on screen. You may think you know the story, but the truth is more damning than you could ever imagine!”
In interviews about the project, McAleer and McElhinney have said they intend to examine the life and exploits of President Joe Biden’s son younger son Hunter by focusing on “established facts” rather than speculation or conspiracy theories of the kind that circulated widely in the months leading up to the last election.
“Somebody has to tell this story, so we decided to make this movie,” McAleer told Fox News. “People need to know this story. It’s about some of the most powerful people in the country. Nobody knows it. But it’s shocking.”
The younger Biden’s life and business dealings were subjected to much speculation during the fall campaign. Allegations that he acted as a go-between or bagman for his father while the elder Biden was Vice President of the United States were seized upon by supporters of then-President Donald Trump who used them to try and blacken his opponent’s reputation.
The allegations were given a momentous push forward after stories began to circulate that a laptop had been located in a Delaware repair shop containing salacious material that might confirm some or all of the stories about financial misdeeds and international corruption that were being spread about the younger Biden’s activities Those stories, which were eventually published in the New York Post, were later suppressed by social media outlets including Twitter which took the then-extraordinary step of suspending the paper’s account to keep the story from spreading.
McAleer and McElhinney are hoping, they said, to raise $2.5 million over the next 60 days to fund the project but show little concern they will be unable to do it. A previous crowdfunding effort of theirs raised more than $2.3 million which they used to make an eponymous film about Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell that was released to theaters in October 2018.
Hunter Biden, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, is under investigation by the federal government over tax matters as well as his business dealings in China and Ukraine. Overseeing the inquiry is David Weiss, a Trump-era appointee to the position of United States Attorney for Delaware who was asked to stay on in his current role in early February after almost all other U.S. Attorneys were asked by the Biden Administration to submit their resignations by the end of the month.
“This is an incredibly fascinating story,” McElhinney said. “It’s ‘Austin Powers’ meets ‘King Lear’ with a dash of ‘House of Cards.’ The story is so compelling that viewers on both sides of the aisle will find it incredibly entertaining.”
No casting choices have been announced and the script, McAleer said, was still in production. Filming is expected to begin in the summer of 2021, somewhere in Eastern Europe.
A new Democratic-sponsored Colorado Senate bill is raising eyebrows with the proposed establishment of a state-run ministry of truth to regulate online speech.
The bill, titled “Digital Communications Regulation,” seeks the creation of a digital communications division under the state department of regulatory agencies to regulate online content available in the state. The division will be run by a new commission to serve as government-blessed arbiters of truth.
Under the legislation, proposed by Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan, the new commission is tasked with the authority to investigate and hold hearings on claims filed with the division that accuse a particular platform of engaging in what the government declares unlawful conduct. Such conduct under the proposal ranges from promoting “hate speech” to “disinformation,” “fake news,” and “conspiracy theories,” or content the commission determines is meant to “undermine election integrity.” The idea for a similar proposal at the federal level was floated by New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in January.
The bill puts government force behind an already-implemented progressive purge pursued by Silicon Valley tech giants wielding unprecedented power over the digital public square, with many of the same rules already in place. Such rules, however, which have become more stringently enforced to justify censorship of conservatives and reporting unfavorable to progressive interests, have been applied with remarkable inconsistency.
“We all know from experience at other places where such rules are in place, they’re not applied equally,” Joshua Sharf, a senior fellow in fiscal policy at the Denver libertarian think tank Independence Institute, told The Federalist. “They’re actually impossible to apply equally.”
The contrast between the four-year conspiracy alleging President Donald Trump was a Russian agent and the online suppression of blockbuster revelations published by the New York Post last fall, which implicated then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in his son’s potentially criminal overseas business ventures, illustrates how rules governing online content are arbitrarily enforced for political purposes. There is no shortage of examples highlighting Silicon Valley’s double-standards.
“Realistically, we all know what the intent here is,” Sharf, who runs his own online blog, warned. “The intent here is to limit what Sen. Donovan considers conservative speech.”
Donovan did not respond to The Federalist’s request for an interview.
Under the senator’s legislation, communications-oriented online businesses, including social media platforms and media-sharing platforms with services offered to Colorado residents, would be forced to register with the new government ministry of truth. Failure to do so would classify as a class-two misdemeanor with up to a $5,000 fine each day until they comply.
Republican Colorado Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, who sits on the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee where the bill was introduced, railed against the proposal as unconstitutional and shared no faith that the independent commission appointed by the governor would dictate online content fairly.
“I have no confidence whatsoever that if the commission was formed it would be somewhat politically diverse,” Sonnenberg told The Federalist. “It’s almost like a giant commission just like Facebook to determine what posts are accurate and what are not.”
Republicans in the state’s upper chamber have already pledged their opposition, though Democrats control both houses of the Colorado legislature.
“Nobody wants an unelected commission of wannabe authoritarians deciding what is and is not ‘fake news’ and what we can and cannot read on the internet,” Colorado Senate Republican spokesman Sage Naumann told The Federalist. “We’re hopeful this bill never makes it to the floor.”
Sonnenberg said he saw no momentum for that happening, even as Democrats hold the majority.
“Anybody with a reasonable mind would look at this bill and go, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ This indeed is a violation of our First Amendment, a blatant violation,” Sonnenberg told The Federalist. “If this is a party-line vote and it gets out of committee, we have bigger problems in our country.”
BlockNYT app bars 800 Times reporters from Twitter feed
A new app offers the ability to block New York Times reporters on Twitter en masse, escalating the feud between the tech community and the Paper of Record.
The BlockNYT project rolled out Monday morning anonymously on Twitter, promising the ability to “block 800 NYT reporters for the low price of $0.” It circulated rapidly among West Coast tech workers, who in recent years have grown to distrust the reporters who cover tech companies and online culture.
Reporters at the Times have developed an increasingly adversarial relationship with major tech figures. Angel investor Balaji Srinivasan has clashed repeatedly online with Taylor Lorenz, a tech reporter at the Times. Lorenz drew fire for claiming on February 6 that investor and entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, cofounder of venture capital firm a16z, had used the word “retard” in the voice-chat app Clubhouse. Multiple participants in the chat room denied the allegation.
The glossy “BlockNYT” website mimics the Times‘s front page. But rather than real news headlines, the page features 21 Times scandals, ranging from Walter Duranty’s whitewashing the Soviet famine in 1933 to the recent news that a podcast on ISIS got key facts wrong.
Reached for comment, the anonymous figure behind the app said, “The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for helping starve five million people to death. That was almost ninety years ago. Their star reporters lied on Twitter. That was yesterday.”
In June 2020, a Times journalist reportedly planned to doxx—or publicly identify—the anonymous figure behind “SlateStarCodex,” a popular blog in the tech community. The blogger, who claimed anonymity was vital for his safety and livelihood, deleted all posts on the blog, leading to widespread condemnation of the Times.
Blocklists have gained popularity in recent years as a tool for managing one’s experience online. Block Party, a popular blocklist app, bills itself as a “service for tackling online harassment.” In 2015, Twitter rolled out tools to make and share blocklists, but quickly removed the functionality.
Internet theorist L.M. Sacasas pointed out that BlockNYT also functions as a symbol of in-group identity: “The average user of an app like this isn’t really interested in blocking New York Times reporters so much as they are interested in being perceived as the sort of people who block New York Times reporters.” But he also noted that in an era of “information superabundance,” comprehensively blocking a specific outlet may not meaningfully decrease the amount of news the user receives.
That superabundance of information may be driving competition between the Times and tech. A Times piece over the summer documented the flood of journalists moving from legacy media organizations to Substack, an email newsletter platform that allows writers to monetize their writing directly. In a January 25 podcast, Times opinion writer Kara Swisher warned that Donald Trump could reach a mass audience through Substack. The newsletter platform is backed by several major venture-capital firms, including a16z.
Silicon Valley's allies are filling up the Biden administration. A big payoff is sure to follow.
Silicon Valley played an integral role in propelling Joe Biden to the White House. He raked in uncounted millions from liberal tech billionaires such as Netflix’s Reed Hastings, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, and Apple heiress Laurene Powell Jobs; their employees shelled out $5 million more.
As Biden takes office, the techies want what they paid for. Reuters reports that executives at top firms like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are gunning for jobs at the Departments of Defense, State, Justice, and Commerce and also eyeing influential posts at the Federal Trade Commission and beyond.
They want two things: lucrative federal contracts and less scrutiny than they’ve gotten over the past four years, as President Donald Trump has made their bias against conservatives front-page news. The Department of Justice’s antitrust inquiry into big tech has already garnered bipartisan backing, including from a group of state attorneys general who have filed their own suit.
A Biden administration could make all of that go away. And it could ignore altogether these firms’ obsequious dealings with Communist China.
That explains the rush to fill seats: It’s unlikely that the techies moving into the Biden administration will check their business relationships at the door. Each hire is another pressure point for Silicon Valley’s most powerful to exploit.
This is hardly a problem unique to Democrats—you just hear about it less when they’re in the White House. This sort of revolving door was considered outrageous in the George W. Bush administration, when Democrats and the media harped relentlessly on Dick Cheney’s ties to Halliburton and charged that he was in the pocket of Big Oil. They raised the same ruckus when Trump appointed Exxon chief Rex Tillerson as his first secretary of state.
These unseemly connections aren’t new for Democrats. Google employees averaged a meeting a week with that Obama White House, influencing a president who “routinely pushed policy that pleased the tech-savvy.”
Now think what happens with those same lobbyists running the show. After rolling out transition teams free of connections to big tech, Team Biden added several Facebook executives over the Thanksgiving holiday. The transition team “has already stacked its agency review teams with more tech executives than tech critics,” Reuters notes, including “several officials from Big Tech companies, which emerged as top donors to the campaign.”ADVERTISING
Their influence doesn’t stop there. Biden on Tuesday named as an economic adviser Joelle Gamble, who last worked as an investor under eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, funneling funding to outfits run by other Biden appointees. Others may soon follow, like Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy chief and former Kamala Harris aide Mike Troncoso.
For just one example of how a problematic connection, consider WestExec, the consultancy cofounded by secretary of state nominee Tony Blinken. The firm helped Google win contracts from the Defense Department and advised Google cofounder Eric Schmidt’s philanthropy. Now, Reuters says, Schmidt is making recommendations for personnel in the Biden Defense Department, a textbook example of business relationships shaping government policy.
That’s just the start of the coming horse trading, hidden behind the Obama-era pretext that the White House is merely cultivating a relationship with the smartest people. But if personnel is policy, the Biden White House will be doing everything it can to comfort Silicon Valley’s most comfortable.
By Red State•
While the rest of the country enjoyed their Thanksgiving dinners and began their Christmas shopping, the big brass at Google had a lot to think and worry about over the long weekend.
You may recall that earlier this year, Google was the recipient of a bipartisan grilling in Congress over its predatory business practices. The big tech goliath was unable to offer up even a semblance of a convincing defense, leading some to speculate that an antitrust bust-up was awaiting on the horizon.
Over the past few months, those rumblings have turned into reality.
First, in October, the Department of Justice announced a formal antitrust lawsuit, putting the full weight of the federal government on Google’s neck. Then, last week — just two days before Thanksgiving — a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general announced plans for a second lawsuit, which may come this month (a third antitrust suit spearheaded by Texas is also in the works). It is very likely that by next summer, every state and federal division of the judicial branch will be pursuing the breakup of the search engine giant.
But it may be the Supreme Court, traditionally the final stop on legal journeys, that strikes the first blow.
Observers may recall that back in October, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a copyright infringement case regarding the shady origins of Google’s Android software. The lawsuit’s gist is that Oracle claims Google sticky-fingered Java source code developed by its subsidiary, Sun Microsystems, to build up Android OS — a multi-billion-dollar revenue generator that runs on millions of smartphones.
Consider some of the most damning details.
According to the lawsuit, Google stole what it refused to buy after Sun offered Google a three-year license to use its code. The deal would have cost Google $100 million. Google decided that, as Woody Woodpecker used to say, free was a much better price.
This is an interesting argument. If Google initially sought permission to use Sun’s code, it implies that Google knew perfectly well the code wasn’t just theirs to take. One doesn’t ask permission to use the public sidewalk. One does ask permission to borrow the neighbor’s car — and if the borrower takes it for a drive without permission, everyone understands what that is.
The Supreme Court appears to understand this point very well, which doesn’t look good for Google.
As Justice Brett Kavanaugh put it: “You’re not allowed to copy a song just because it’s the only way to express that (particular) song.” In other words, the fact that Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin is the only song that sounds like Stairway to Heaven doesn’t mean that people who didn’t write it have a right to record it and sell it just because they like the way it sounds.
If they did so, everyone would understand a theft had occurred, and the thief would be held accountable.
Justice Neil Gorsuch made the point that the existence of one avenue, however popular it may be, doesn’t prevent creators from finding new ones. The fact the Led Zeppelin wrote Stairway to Heaven and made a lot of money selling albums in no way prevented Stone Temple Pilots from writing Plush and selling lots of albums of their own.
Gorsuch’s reasoning explains why other mobile operators managed to create their products without using Java at all. Java wasn’t the only way into town, so to speak, as Google claims; the tech giant just refused to find a new path.
While we likely won’t know the official decision until the summer, Google is likely sweating bullets.
It’s one of the wealthiest companies in history, but it’s facing an unprecedented level of legal pressure due to two decades of bad behavior. From the outside looking in, it appears the courts are circling the wagons.
Consumers need not worry. None of the services Google provides are irreplaceable innovations or at threat of disappearing in the case of a breakup. It’s even possible that, with the market’s largest digital predator subdued, a breakup would lead to a flurry of new digital services.
The only people who have to worry are Google shareholders and employees. They’re looking at legal cases and potentially billions in losses. Those prospects would dampen anyone’s holiday season.
How do you make a case against capitalism while appearing to defend consumers’ rights and values? You make a movie called The Social Dilemma.
The movie is cleverly done. It purports to oppose manipulation by Big Tech of social media users, calling out advertisers who manipulate people for profit. At the same time, the movie engages in its own manipulation. How does it do so? To quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “let me count the ways.”
State the credentials only of the people on your side
Throughout the ninety-four-minute movie, various commentators argue that social media have done great harm. In every case but one, the commentators criticize social media, warning us of its many harms. The movie states quite prominently, without exception, the credentials for all the negative commentators, and the credentials are impressive. The main commentator throughout is Tristan Harris, identified as a former design ethicist at Google and also as president of the Center for Humane Technology. Another commentator is Sandy Parakilas, identified as a former platform operations manager at Facebook and a former product manager at Uber. Yet another is Justin Rosenstein, whom the movie identifies as a major player at Google and then Facebook. A fourth is Shoshana Zuboff, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. That’s not a complete list.
In the whole movie, only one person expresses skepticism about the idea that manipulation by social media is sui generis. He expresses this view at a panel in which he challenges the aforementioned Tristan Harris. This skeptic points out that newspapers and print media also played on people’s addictions and ability to be influenced. He notes that when television came along, it did so as well, but in different ways. This, according to the skeptic, is just the next thing.
Here’s what’s most interesting about this skeptic. Only because I’m an economist do I know who he is. “That’s Kevin Murphy,” I said to my wife, who was watching the movie with me. Who’s Kevin Murphy? You wouldn’t know from watching the movie. You had to pay close attention even to know it was Kevin Murphy. I had to pause and rewind and only then did I notice that he had a name card in front of him. Probably not one viewer in fifty notices that, and probably not one viewer in a thousand knows who he is. So let me tell you. Kevin M. Murphy is a star economist at the University of Chicago. He won the John Bates Clark Medal in 1997, given in those days only once every two years to the most outstanding American economist under age forty. He’s the only business school professor ever to win a MacArthur genius award. But the movie tells you none of that.
That’s how the movie deals with controversy: allow only one person to challenge the narrative and don’t even tell the viewer who he is. The basic narrative is that Facebook, Google, and other social media manipulate us. But when it comes to manipulation, those media have nothing on the makers of The Social Dilemma.
Hint at the problem without ever showing the problem
The bad actors in the movie’s narrative are advertisers and the wealthy social media firms. At one point in the movie, Parakilas states, “It’s not like they’re [the social media companies] trying to benefit us. Right? We’re just zombies and they want us to look at more ads so they can make more money.” What’s the problem with that? You might think in a standard-length movie, the critics would try to say why. Here’s the amazing thing: they don’t.
So let’s fill in the missing reasoning. Think about why companies would pay social media firms to advertise. It’s to get people to buy their products. If advertising on social media were seen as completely ineffective, companies would pay precisely zero for advertising. The fact that they keep paying and that social media companies get rich by selling advertising, month in, month out, means that advertising is effective.
Wouldn’t you want the critics in the movie to then point to how advertising manipulates our tastes for products, causing us to buy things we don’t “really” want? Amazingly, they don’t.
The closest the movie comes to making a case is near the end of the movie, when Rosenstein states:
Corporations are using powerful artificial intelligence to outsmart us and figure out how to pull our attention to what they want us to look at, rather than the things that are most consistent with our goals and our values and our lives.
But why would they do that? Isn’t it easier to sell us things that are consistent with our goals, our values, and our lives?
The critics point out numerous times that the companies are continuously refining their algorithms to learn more and more about you. They imply that that’s bad without ever saying why. There’s an old saying whose origin is unknown that goes as follows: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
I think we can all agree that waste is bad. So isn’t it good rather than bad that advertisers and social media are continually honing their tools to put in front of your eyes items that you really have a high probability of buying? They aren’t there yet. Sometimes when I Google an item I’m thinking of buying, within what seems to be minutes an ad for that item shows up on my Facebook page. It’s almost always mildly annoying, either because the advertised item is a brand I don’t want or because I was just exploring and have decided that I don’t want that item at all. Which means that not half, but perhaps 90 percent, of that advertising was wasted on me.
Some people find it creepy that advertisers know so much about us. I don’t, although I understand the feeling. But think back to how advertisers tried to reach us before social media existed. Imagine that you live in a Jewish household. Which kind of advertising by mail would you dislike more: mailers premised on the assumption that you’re Jewish or mailers premised on the assumption that your household is Muslim, Catholic, or Buddhist?
Make up history
In one segment of the movie, Harris contrasts social media with previous innovations, claiming that no one objected to bicycles on the grounds that those who used them would spend less time with their families. Neither he nor the movie presents any evidence for his claim. But here’s what I found with just a little search (on Google, by the way) about early attitudes toward the bicycle. In a 2001 book titled The Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869–1900, author Glen Norcliffe quotes an essay by Heather Watts on early cycling in Nova Scotia. Watts writes:
At a time when higher education, women’s suffrage, and the movement for dress reform were all topics of heated discussion, the bicycle became one more liberating influence on the restricted lifestyle of Victorian women. . . . This element of freedom and independence greatly appealed to women. They were no longer left at home, but could go on outings with their women friends or accompany their young man on an equal basis. Once tasted, the new freedom was hard to abandon.
If bicycling was a liberating force for women, and if women were able to ride with their women friends, is there much doubt about whether some critics at the time claimed that bicycling women would spend less time with their families?
Play up the downside of social media with little attention to the upside
I do think the movie scored a direct hit on a huge downside of social media: the purported effects on people between the ages of ten and nineteen. It presented some disturbing data about the effects on young girls, especially those ages ten to fourteen, of media such as Instagram that encourage them to compare their faces and bodies with what seem to be regarded as ideal body types. Here are two shocking statistics about what has happened since 2011, when Facebook and other social media had become widespread: the number of girls aged ten to fourteen per 100,000 who are admitted to hospitals for cutting themselves or harming themselves in other ways has risen 189 percent, and the number of girls aged ten to fourteen per 100,000 who have committed suicide has risen 151 percent.
One critic, Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, gives a straightforward solution: set an age below which your child is not allowed to use social media and limit your child’s use of such media. To say it’s straightforward is not to say it’s easy. It’s probably hard, but parenting is hard.
To their credit, the critics do mention some upsides to social media. Harris says you can get on your smartphone and have a car show up quickly. Critic Tim Kendall, identified as the former president of Pinterest, notes that social media have helped people find long-lost relatives and organ donors. That’s pretty big.
But there are many more upsides. I can find some half-forgotten poem from high school when I remember only one sentence. That happened just last month with this poem. We can check a fact, we can follow friends, not just family, with whom we had lost touch, and we can compare airfares and make airline reservations in minutes, without either the use of a travel agent or even a phone call. I’ve just scratched the surface.
Discuss the upside as if it’s the downside
Critic Bailey Richardson, an early team member of Instagram, says that when the Internet first started, it was a weird, wacky place with lots of creativity. She recognizes that creative things still happen on the Internet, but now, she says, it feels like a “giant mall.”
That’s bad? Some people whom I’m close to have restricted diets because of various ailments. For them, shopping online has been wonderful. One person in particular needs to keep gluten out of her diet. And she is able to find appealing, tasteful, gluten-free items online much more easily than if she had to shop in her semi-urban, semi-rural part of the country. Imagine if she lived in, say, rural Nevada. Shopping online could be a godsend.
Attack wealth when it’s not that of your allies
At many points in the movie, the critics point out disdainfully how wealthy the social media companies are. That raises two questions. First, is there some chance they got that way by making things we want more available? Answer: yes. Second, how wealthy are these critics? Answer: very. Critic and investor Roger McNamee, for example, is a billionaire. Justin Rosenstein’s net worth is $150 million. The other critics are multimillionaires. Honestly earned wealth is not a mark against the wealthy, whether the wealthy be social media critics or social media firms.
Lay out your real agenda, with no evidence, at the end
Near the end of the movie, probably many viewers are hooked. Then we get to what seems to be the agenda of the critics and the movie makers: to end, or highly regulate, free markets.
Zuboff states, “These markets undermine democracy and undermine freedom and they should be outlawed.” The movie director possibly forgot to insert a sentence or two telling us which markets Zuboff is referring to. Whatever markets she wants to end, that would be a major hit on capitalism.
Rosenstein complains that social media corporations go unregulated “as if somehow magically each corporation acting in its selfish interest is going to produce the best result.” One gets the idea that he’s never read Adam Smith, who indeed did arguein The Wealth of Nations that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.”
Rosenstein also says mining the earth and pulling oil out of the ground are bad for humans. He claims as evidence of a warped, for-profit system that trees and whales are worth more dead than alive. And then he jumps the shark, or maybe I should say the whale, by saying “we’re the tree; we’re the whale.” How exactly social media companies kill us and how exactly they gain from dead consumers he leaves as an exercise for the viewer.
Various friends told me that The Social Dilemma would upset me. It did. As noted, I found the facts about young girls very disturbing. The biggest upset, though, is that a bunch of critics and a movie director manipulate viewers into not knowing that there is another side to this debate, understate the benefits of social media, and use the movie as a vehicle for a rant against capitalism. Other than that, the movie was great.
It’s not enough to kick conservatives off of Twitter. Narrative control is the goal. Any alternative, any other avenue of ‘freer’ speech, must be shut down.
The dominant Big Tech companies’ power to control the access and availability of information was unmasked during the Donald Trump presidency. The full extent and intent of that power has been further exposed in the 2020 election.
From Facebook, to Google, to Twitter, it is now clear that these companies have every intention of using the unprecedented control they have amassed, not to facilitate a diversity of speech and viewpoints, but to shape national narratives in the direction they prefer. Users—even those who are elected—will comply, or be banned.
Twitter, in particular, has shed any pretense of being a platform interested in facilitating free expression. In 2011, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo characterized Twitter as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” The sentiment was echoed a year later by Tony Wang, general manager at Twitter UK, who claimed the company’s founding principles compelled it to remain “neutral” about the content its users posted.
Nearly a decade later, those sentiments have flipped. Twitter has spent the Trump years aggressing against the president, placing his tweets behind filters, blocking his press secretary, and censoring his Senate-confirmed advisors.
The platform aggressively ran interference for the Joe Biden campaign, refusing to allow a New York Post story detailing corruption in the Biden family from circulating on its platform. Users were prohibited for weeks from sharing the story, and their accounts were locked if they did.
Even the use of direct messages—Twitter’s supposedly private communication tool—was screened and filtered for wrong-think. That practice has continued outside of sharing the Hunter Biden story, casting doubt on Twitter’s claim that the company doesn’t read your direct messages. It is clear that, at least in some capacity, they do.
All of this was under the guise of preventing “misinformation” from spreading on Twitter—that, presumably, could inform voter behavior. This made it all the more bizarre when Twitter’s deeply weird CEO, Jack Dorsey, claimed while under oath to the Senate Commerce Committee that the platform has no ability to influence election outcomes.
Sen. Ted Cruz, who had asked Dorsey the question, appeared almost caught off-guard by the absurdity of the claim. Cruz responded with the obvious follow-up. If you can’t influence election outcomes, he said, then why do you moderate political content at all?
But Twitter does moderate political content, and they very clearly do so in one direction. In the wake of the election, under the guise of moderating for “misinformation” and “fomenting violence,” the platform has banned the bombastic former Trump advisor Steve Bannon for stating that he’d like to see Dr. Anthony Fauci’s “head on a pike,” while happily allowing comedian Kathy Griffin to re-post her notorious photo of a beheaded Trump.
Richard Baris, one of the few pollsters who was right about the 2020 election results, had his account blocked for tweeting his findings about voter fraud. And not just his account, but that of his business, his newsletter, and his wife. There was “no reason given,” he said in a post on Parler, where he had just opened an account.
Parler, which has grown in popularity among conservatives as a Twitter alternative, is predictably being labeled as “a threat to democracy” by CNN. It’s not enough to kick conservatives off of Twitter. Narrative control is the goal. Any alternative, any other avenue of “freer” speech, must be shut down.
Defenders of the social media platforms often do so in a vacuum. They defend Twitter’s content moderation as a private company expressing its First Amendment rights. Not only does this argument ignore that Twitter, like Facebook and Google, exercises its First Amendment rights in a privileged manner, it intentionally sidesteps the consequences Twitter’s actions have on Americans’ ability to consume news, think for themselves, and express their views away from Twitter.
Social media platforms are no longer merely independent actors, facilitating information sharing and viewpoints. Increasingly, they inform the news. Although it has a far smaller market share than Facebook and Google, Twitter has the most news-focused users and a much broader share of continuous, minute-by-minute engagement by news outlets, media elites, elected officials, and public policy intellectuals. Their engagement with the platform drives, and very much determines, news coverage.
“Though Twitter may not be a huge overall source of traffic to news websites relative to Facebook and Google, it serves a unique place in the link economy,” said a report by Nieman Labs in 2016. “News really does ‘start’ on Twitter.”
Recall the absurd story in 2017 that Trump killed an entire pond of koi fish while on an official visit in Japan. Multiple news outlets breathlessly covered the story, speculating wildly about the fish and mocking Trump. That story, which was false, began with tweets—not filed stories—from news outlets and reporters. The tweets then directedcoverage on multiple outlets.
Tucker Carlson, who has the most-watched cable news show in the country, spent the summer covering the violent elements of the Black Lives Matter protests in ways that every other network refused to do. Much of the coverage he aired on his show came from videos posted to Twitter by reporters on the ground, outside of the mainstream networks.
Earlier this month, Axios reported that newsrooms are planning “to invest more heavily in coverage of social media and internet trends as a way to observe political sentiment from a wider group of people.”
Twitter does far less to facilitate the news than it does to make it. Thus its content moderation decisions have ramifications far beyond Twitter. They echo down the corridors of what makes news in America, and who is allowed to do it, and what ordinary Americans are allowed to say about it. This means Twitter plays an outsized role in creating, gatekeeping, and sustaining the national narrative.
Twitter’s offline consequences extend beyond its manipulation of the news narrative, as Twitter is increasingly the woke mob’s favorite venue of cancellation.
Late last week, a Twitter user with minimal followers complaint-tweeted at Target because it sold a book by Abigail Shrier questioning the wisdom of promoting irreversible transgender surgery and hormone therapy for children. Target subsequently banned the book, although it was later reinstated after public outcry.The platform’s role in the viral nature of cancel culture belies the notion that these are merely ‘private platforms’ with no larger effects.
The Lincoln Project tweeted the images of two attorneys working for the Trump campaign, their emails, phone numbers, and photos alongside the phrase “make them famous.” Twitter allowed the tweet to circulate on its platform for hours before it was finally removed.
Twitter does not drive these cancellation decisions as a matter of policy, but the platform’s role in the viral nature of cancel culture belies the notion that these are merely “private platforms” with no larger effects on free speech, free thought, and free behavior in America.
They also raise troubling questions about how that role will evolve. As the left continues to push for a social credit system—that is, say or suggest wrongthink, get banned from polite society—what role will social media play as the reporting Stasi arm of the woke mob?
Big Tech has grown from a handful of Silicon Valley startups to a handful of the most powerful companies in the world, exercising unprecedented control over minds, markets, behavior, and independent thought. They are changing how we live together.
How we choose to deal with them, politically, is less a binary question of “regulation” or “government interference in business” than it is, truly, a question of the social order; of who sets the terms of social engagement. Is it a free people, speaking through their rights and representative government, or a set of corporations weaponized by an illiberal woke agenda controlling our news narrative, information gathering, and social and cultural compliance?