Free speech remained in a perilous state in 2017, as Big Tech became increasingly comfortable with censorship, applying inscrutable rules through enigmatic algorithms that looked an awful lot like old-fashioned political bias to outside observers. Meanwhile, around the world, the list of things people are not allowed to discuss in public grew ever longer.
Much attention was focused on the microblogging service Twitter, which has “gone from bastion of free speech to global censor,” as former Catalan parliamentary speaker Alfons Lopez Tena said in a June Business Insider op-ed.
Tena cataloged examples of organized campaigns using waves of complaints to shut down targeted accounts by exploiting Twitter’s automated system for suppressing abusive accounts. Authoritarian governments and political parties have mastered the art of using such campaigns to silence opponents.
“Any organized group can now make Twitter work for them censoring the people they target, to make it label their tweets as ‘sensitive’ or ‘potentially offensive’, to delete all of them, to hide, suspend, and close the accounts they may see fit. It’s enough to launch an organized attack to denounce the targeted accounts as ‘sensitive’, ‘offensive’, ‘harming’, ‘spam’, and Twitter will obligingly censor it,” he explained.
Tena’s advice for resisting censorship campaigns on Twitter included blocking and refusing to engage with a “potential denouncer” who might be an advance scout for a banning mob, which is the exact opposite of how people romping through a digital playground for limitless free speech ought to behave. We are being taught to fear speaking openly with one another.
Another blow was struck against free speech when Twitter announced it would begin reviewing verified statuses based on the content of the user’s tweets. The “blue checkmark” was originally intended to protect against spoof accounts by verifying that high-profile users are who they claim to be. Suddenly it became a mark of prestige and ideological approval.
Many questions were raised about the criteria used by Twitter to decide who gets, or loses, the blue checkmark. Some people were ruthlessly subjected to summary judgment, while others with long histories of spewing venomous hatred were left untouched. Accounts with the blue checkmark seal of approval were responsible for some spectacular online meltdowns in 2017, featuring outbursts of extreme rhetoric.
Pro-life group Live Action complained that Twitter is suppressing their content for political reasons, under cover of the excuse that images of children in the womb are “inflammatory.” Twitter demanded major changes to Live Action’s content before their account would be restored. “In other words, we have to remove practically all of our pro-life content before Twitter says it will allow us to advertise again,” founder Lila Rose wrote in December.
Other social media companies were criticized for being far too willing to accommodate the censorship demands of authoritarian regimes. As the end of 2017 approached, Chinese regulators bluntly informed Google and Facebook they would have to comply with the communist nation’s elaborate censorship rules and ideological controls if they want access to China’s 751 million Internet users.
The standard response is that limited access to a huge but tightly controlled market is better than none at all, especially when control-freak countries like China have their own social media platforms standing by to pick up the slack if the likes of Facebook, Google, and Twitter are locked out.
On the other hand, acquiescence is giving the captive populations of these authoritarian regimes the illusion of more freedom and global knowledge than they actually possess, and sustained commerce with ugly regimes is infecting Western companies with authoritarian values.
Facebook, for example, is growing very comfortable with stealthy censorship supposedly triggered by automatic systems that protect other users from viewing objectionable material or “misinformation.” Google and its YouTube subsidiary have been accused of suppressing conservative videos on more than one occasion.
Some of this censorship is justified in the name of combating “fake news” from both domestic sources and foreign provocateurs seeking to undermine the American political system. Of course, “what is truth?” is among the oldest questions asked by mankind. Judgments of what constitutes “fake news” are often highly subjective. Accusations of deliberate misinformation ring from both sides of the partisan divide. Social media services have been criticized for partnering with partisan “fact-checking” units.
Censorship is often a matter of subtle manipulation, rather than outright banning. Google, for example, recently talked about quietly reducing how often articles from Russian news organizations are listed in news feeds instead of delisting them completely. Naturally, the Russians complained this was unfair, but whatever one thinks of their state-controlled “news services,” the notion of stealth censorship is disturbing, and it is not limited to suspected foreign saboteurs. Twitter, for example, has engaged in the practice of “shadow banning,” which involves rendering tweets invisible to other readers without the author being aware he or she has been censored.
Beyond the Internet, the idea that “hate speech” is not protected by the First Amendment gained currency, in part because a generation of students graduated from the tutelage of left-wing academics and carried this poisonous idea into the mainstream. Much as “fake news” tends to be a highly subjective designation, “hate speech” lies in the ear of the beholder. No more convenient mechanism for suppressing disfavored ideas has ever been devised than simply declaring them “hateful” and demanding the dissidents be muzzled.
The current generation of college students is dangerously hostile to free speech. A survey published in September found that only 39 percent of undergraduates believe the First Amendment protects whatever they deem “hate speech.” Over half of them believed shouting down speakers they disagree with is acceptable behavior. About twenty percent believed physical violence is acceptable for silencing speakers who make “offensive and hurtful statements.”
Another report found that 32 percent of colleges now have at least one policy that “clearly and substantially” restricts free speech, while fewer than eight percent have absolutely no policies that threaten the First Amendment rights of students.
In December, Northwest Vista College President Ric Baser became the latest academic to argue that “hate speech does not equal free speech,” in an op-ed with precisely that title. Baser argued that it’s “disingenuous” to claim that suppressing hate speech imperils “diversity of thought.” In other words, the elites will decide how much free speech the rest of us really need.
The American Civil Liberties Union is having second thoughts about whether free speech is one of the civil liberties in need of unwavering protection. Members of the media complain that President Donald Trump is trying to intimidate them into silence with public attacks and legal threats. Left-wing groups have turned on each other in speech-suppression showdowns.
Gangs of masked thugs stand ready to silence disfavored speakers with street violence, convinced that their righteousness and the allegedly fascist desires of their opponents justify assault and vandalism. Sensing their political usefulness, left-wing media outlets have romanticized and even glamorized them.
Just about every point on the political spectrum has developed a limited appetite for freedom of speech. Contrary to early hopes that the Internet would be an untameable frontier where free speech could flourish as never before, it seems to have made censorship easier in many ways. It has certainly enabled a form of online harassment and intimidation that never existed before.
Lives and careers can be destroyed in a matter of hours after controversial remarks are made. Vicious and sustained campaigns of intimidation, including threats of assault and rape, have been waged online against women who oppose trendy left-wing positions like gun control. CNN even targeted and threatened a Reddit user who made a GIF the network didn’t like.
Another element of the free speech crisis is the growing sense that arguments are “won” by silencing the opposition. This conviction is fueled by recent successful efforts to rule certain positions, such as opposition to same-sex marriage, beyond the pale. Many other groups aspire to elevate their own ideals to sacred tenets that cannot be questioned in respectable company. There is no easier way to manufacture “consensus” than to make dissent unspeakable. It is a shortcut to political power that many are eager to take.
Transgenderism is shaping up to be one of the great new menaces to freedom of speech, as long lists of politically correct pronouns are formulated and angry demands to silence “gender-normative” speech are made. As with other crusades against freedom of expression, transgenderism was incubated in campus petri dishes before being unleashed into public space, where baffled citizens can suddenly find themselves charged with the crime of using the wrong pronoun.
There are also disturbing signs of foreign governments and ideologies exerting censorious pressure on American soil. Islamic law is the most notorious example — it is effectively impossible to violate Islamic blasphemy laws in American media space, and radical Islamic terrorism remains a difficult topic for government officials to discuss frankly — but there are others.
Tiananmen Square veteran Wang Dan, for instance, warned in November 2017 that the Chinese government is “extending its surveillance of critics abroad, reaching into Western academic communities and silencing visiting Chinese students.” Blacklists and threats against family living in China are among the instruments of oppression Wang described.
Can anyone doubt that authoritarian governments will use their influence with Western social media companies in the future to demand more censorship beyond their borders, much as they presently threaten to lock the companies out of their captive markets if demands for content control are not met?
All around the world, there is a retreat from the principle of free speech, justified with everything from appeals for social unity to the belief that sheltered groups must be protected from words that would “oppress” them. It is hard to think of any place where freedom of speech became more robust in 2017.
There have been hopeful signs, however. A Rasmussen poll in August found 73 percent of Americans still believe freedom of speech is an ideal worth dying for, and 85 percent thought that protecting free speech is more important than making sure no one is offended. Facebook abandoned its effort to tag certain news items as “disputed” because there was a potent backlash: it turned out people were more likely to believe stories tagged as fake news without any further explanation.
Unfortunately, the vital question is not what percentage of Americans believe that but what percentage of Google, Facebook, and Twitter executives believe it and if they are willing to stand up to the demands of authoritarians with billion-dollar markets under their thumbs.