A little more than one year ago, a few weeks after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, I worried out loud to some friends in the tech world about the way numerous Internet-based services had responded by banning far-right figures associated with the event. While social media services like Twitter had banned individual provocateurs such as Chuck Johnson and Milo Yiannopoulos prior to this, the wave of bans following Charlottesville included credit card companies, financial services, booking sites, and domain registrars.
I worried this set a precedent whereby those with views far enough outside the mainstream, whatever that may mean, would be denied not only the ability to voice their ideas publicly, but the ability to function in the modern world. No, my friends assured me, this fear was unfounded. First, in a marketplace, firms are interested in drawing from a larger pool of customers. Second, the Charlottesville marchers were too extreme to indicate a broader trend.
Fast-forward to today, and not only have more mainstream, but still somewhat fringe, figures—most notably Alex Jones—met similar fates, but in the past week Twitter has also begun to ban indisputably mainstream figures. On Sunday, Jesse Kelly, a conservative writer who voiced concern about creeping social media censorship in the wake of Jones’ banning in August, had his account permanently terminated without apparent reason.
Last week, Twitter also permanently banned feminist writer Meghan Murphy for tweets insufficiently obedient to transgender language conventions. The latter incident highlighted a recent change in Twitter’s terms of service regarding “Hateful conduct” to now include “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.”
Referring to transgender people by either their biological sex or their name prior to becoming transgender is now grounds for a ban, grouped in with “non-consensual slurs, epithets, racist and sexist tropes, or other content that degrades someone.” While Kelly and Murphy have not faced the cross-platform bans that Jones did, their cases illustrate the shifting definition of “hate” that is increasingly being used to justify the censorship and ostracism of anyone willing to voice even mainstream conservative opinions.
We’ll return to Twitter and other online services shortly, but let’s shift for the moment to another major story of the past few weeks: China’s new comprehensive “social credit” system, which tracks and rates citizens according to various government-approved and -disapproved behaviors. The stated goal is that citizens who have demonstrated sufficiently “anti-social” behavior will be “unable to move a single step.” Millions of attempts at booking flights and train trips have already been blocked for those with too low a rating.
With few exceptions, the Western reaction to a system wherein dissenters and troublemakers are locked out of the ability to function in everyday life has been horror. “So dystopian and authoritarian as to defy belief” commented Yale sociology professor Nicholas Christakis. Such a fusion of technology and totalizing control ought surely to remain in the pages of Orwell, right?
Absent from the discussion is the recognition that we in the open, liberal, tolerant West have been in the process of developing our own such system. True, our system is not implemented by the state. But the result, of denying “anti-social” elements access to the services most of us take for granted, is already occurring.
For the time being, financial services like PayPal have only excluded figures on the fringe, such as white nationalists and Alex Jones. But if Twitter’s expanding definition of “hate” is indicative of the broader trend—as it has been before—the writing is on the wall for even regular conservatives.
So why weren’t my friends correct when they told me not to worry? How might a decentralized market be able to produce the same kinds of outcomes the Chinese government mandates? Surely competition precludes rejecting so many potential customers.
Well, for social media or other kinds of peer-to-peer services, the value of a platform grows with its user base. In the same way that a credit card is only useful when a large number of businesses accept it, social media is only attractive if it connects a large number of people.
Thus the trend in these kinds of networks is toward monopolization. As with water and electricity, the nature of the product is at odds with a competitive marketplace. If everyone used a different payment processor, for instance, no one would be able to pay each other. While alternative platforms are possible in principle, the business structure prevents them from arising.
So with economic incentives driving ever-greater consolidation, all that prevents tech giants from using access to their services as a political bludgeon is the good-faith commitment to fairness. As weak as such a barrier against Chinese-style social credit would be, even that has proven too much to expect.
While Twitter and other services have defended banning prominent right-wing figures on the basis of terms-of-service violations, far more flagrant violations—such as Louis Farrakhan’s quip that “I’m not anti-semite, I’m anti termite”—have gone unaddressed. A rule unequally and arbitrarily applied is no rule at all—and, if necessary, as in Kelly’s case, no reason may be given anyway.
It may sound absurd to compare Twitter bans to a Chinese surveillance dragnet. If that were where things began and ended, it would be. But as more and more of the tools we use in daily life—whether payment processing, social media, or even Uber—move online, the question of what it takes to be banned only becomes more relevant.
China’s system is dystopian not because it is extreme, but precisely because it is so mundane. If life can be made inconvenient enough that having “wrong” opinions ceases to be worthwhile, the question of whether it’s Xi Jinping or Jack Dorsey doing the enforcement is moot. Indeed, insofar as the government tends to do things less efficiently than the private sector, I’ll pick the former.