Last week, Facebook banned Alex Jones, InfoWars, Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer, Paul Nehlen, and Louis Farrakhan, setting off further discussion about the scope of free speech on the internet. Yet the debate over de-platforming is much more about control than freedom of speech.
After all, many on the right are ambivalent, caught between the free speech ethos and the “leave private businesses alone” ethos. Moreover, most of the pro-speech people would not argue for pornography to return to Twitter or YouTube, or that disrupting Islamic State recruitment on Facebook is a bad thing.
Instead, de-platforming is the high-tech version of an older complaint on the right: Big Media, run by the establishment, invariably seeks to marginalize and curate conservatism on their platforms. This debate used to be about broadcast TV; now it is about social media.
Similarly, de-platforming supporters may say they are solely concerned with removing only the most toxic actors from the public discourse to prevent harassment and harm to others. If this were true, they would care more about solutions targeting the platforms in the darker corners of the internet, where radicalization and incitement to violence are at their worst.
Furthermore, the establishment’s standards for toxic speakers are as slippery and selectively applied as always, whether on social or traditional media. Granted, Farrakhan is not actively platformed by legacy media companies. He is also sufficiently toxic that Democrats and progressives have tried to keep their relationships with him very hush-hush.
But The Atlantic published an apologia for these relationships, only to label Farrakhan as a “far-right” extremist after the Facebook ban. The Washington Post tried the same stunt before getting shamed into a correction. Media Matters omitted Farrakhan from their coverage like he was Leon Trotsky (they were also shamed into a stealth edit).
The establishment media promotes Farrakhan’s progressive supporters, like Women’s March leaders Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour (the latter ultimately rejected Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic statements — while defending the anti-Semitic boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement). For a long time, the establishment media was uninterested in reporting on these relationships.
Conservative media and Jewish media helped put the story on the public radar, but it was probably people at establishment outlets—notably Bari Weiss at The New York Times and Meghan McCain on “The View”—who made it impossible to ignore. The left grumbles about Weiss and McCain having access to establishment platforms (and tries to stop people like Kevin Williamson and Sarah Isgur Flores from similar access), a measure of how much the center-left wants to assert its old exclusionary function.
The establishment also provides a platform to the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose public notoriety was built on a hate crime hoax, incitement to racial violence and anti-Semitism. And he offered no apologies when The New York Times undertook to give him a media makeover. Yet MSNBC puts him on the air to shamelessly lecture on, among other subjects, hate crimes in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Democratic presidential candidates breakfast with him and kiss his ring, and the establishment thinks nothing of it.
When MSNBC is not presenting an infamous race-hustler as a moral exemplar, the channel spends time pushing various conspiracy theories, usually involving President Trump and Russia. For example, Lawrence O’Donnell floated the theory that Russia had orchestrated a chemical attack in Syria so Trump could appear to distance himself from Vladmir Putin. Their premiere personality, Rachel Maddow, continues to air wild-eyed conspiracy theories about Trump and Russia, even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller failed to find evidence that would support a charge of conspiracy or coordination.
More generally, the establishment that condemned candidate Trump for suggesting the 2016 election might get rigged continues to platform Hillary Clinton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sen. Sherrod Brown, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and a host of others who claim without evidence that elections were stolen from Democrats.
When Rep. Steve King (R-IA) defended the terms “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” during a New York Times interview (he claims his words were deceptively edited), the House GOP caucus stripped him of committee assignments and supported a resolution of disapproval naming him. When. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) engaged in a series of anti-Semitic slurs, House Democrats decided to treat her as a martyr and pass a resolution condemning bigotry in general without naming her. Omar retained her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee and continues to support the Hamas-led government in Gaza.
Speaking of Omar, she can quite fairly complain that American Muslims should not be required to ritually denounce acts of terror by radical Islamic groups around the world. Yet Omar and a broad swath of the establishment insinuates the right is generally guilty by association with the alt-right, even explicitly smearing people like Ben Shapiro as such. They also want to blame the right generally by extension for threats and violence by white nationalists and those adopting far-right conspiracy theories, in the hope of tightening the circle of what is considered permissible public debate.
Graeme Wood recently observed that this focus on far-right ideological extremism comes after years of the establishment downplaying or ignoring the role of radical Islamic theologies in motivating terror attacks here and abroad. Likewise, the establishment did not work themselves into an illiberal lather demanding the suppression of speech when left-wing activist James Hodgkinson shot U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, U.S. Capitol Police officer Crystal Griner, congressional aide Zack Barth, and lobbyist Matt Mika at a congressional baseball practice.
As columnist Megan McArdle observed as long ago as 2010: “It’s obviously no surprise that the lunatic BS of our own side doesn’t strike us nearly as forcefully as the absolutely appallingly unforgiveable wingnuttery of the opposition.”
Those criticized here may dismiss the critique as “whataboutism.” But no one need defend any of the people recently de-platformed by Facebook or Twitter to understand that the debate is really about an establishment desperate to regain the gatekeeping power they believed they lost as a result of satellite technology and the internet.
That is ultimately an illusion: de-platform enough mainstream righties and (a) social media companies risk losing the network effect at the heart of their dominance; and (b) some corporation like Fox would fill the market niche with another social network. But it is a fiction too pleasant for the establishment to let go of it.