One glaring lesson of the last four years is that making assumptions about the Republican electorate is a dangerous game. Yet I’m told in the pages of National Review it’s a “blunt truth” that “most red Americans either don’t know or don’t care about social-media censorship.”
I wouldn’t be so bold as to assume “most,” in fact, do care. But the signs are hard to miss. That’s why I was genuinely baffled to come across this paragraph in David French’s take on the Steven Crowder controversy:
Here’s the blunt truth, however — most red Americans either don’t know or don’t care about social-media censorship. They certainly don’t care enough to delete their apps. This isn’t a market failure; it’s a market verdict. Apathy rules, and this apathy is sustained in part because social-media companies have chosen their targets carefully. There are few normal Americans who want to jump off their favorite app because YouTube censored someone who uses phrases like ‘lispy queer’ or because Facebook ditched Alex Jones, a man who claimed the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax.
“Those who do truly care about censorship are a rounding error in the market,” French continues. “They’re part of the tiny slice of American citizens who are not only engaged in online conservative politics, they’re motivated enough to do something about censorship.”
First, there is an important distinction between not caring and not caring enough to delete your apps that is lost in the argument above. It’s of course possible to have serious concerns about a service and still use it regularly (a position with which many conservatives are familiar). Concern and apathy can exist alongside one another. Given other factors, it makes little sense to read the “market verdict” in this case as an indication that Republican social media users don’t care about viewpoint discrimination.
A Media Research Center/McLaughlin & Associates poll conducted less than a year ago found that 65 percent of self-described conservatives “believe social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are intentionally censoring conservatives and conservative ideas from their sites” and 66 percent “said they do not trust Facebook to treat all of its users equally regardless of their political beliefs.” But less than 7 percent said they stopped using Facebook “because of its censorship of conservatives.”
A Pew survey conducted last May-June found “Republicans and Republican leaners are around twice as likely as Democrats to say [major technology companies] are less ethical than others (30% vs. 16%).” It also found 44 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners believe those companies should be regulated more than they are currently.
Second, I’m as sensitive to the perils of the online bubble as anyone. I don’t think concerns about social media censorship are confined to it, and am surprised that even needs to be said. Specific dust-ups like the Crowder controversy may not meaningfully penetrate the media diets of average Republicans, but the sheer volume of such stories almost certainly means the broader point does. And there are many signs to suggest Big Tech has become a kitchen table issue, even beyond the GOP base.
Censorship is, of course, only one element of the larger package of conservative concerns with Big Tech. But evidence suggests it’s a big one. Consider, for instance, Fox News’s frequent coverage of these cases. Even if it started as a top-down campaign to stoke ire over censorship (which I doubt), the network’s ongoing focus suggests its large audience is absolutely concerned. Consider also how doggedly conservative politicians like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn), and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have focused on social media censorship, deliberately elevating it to a major campaign issue.
As Federalist Publisher Ben Domenech wrote in Friday morning’s Transom:
[I]t is no accident that one of the most accurate pollsters in the business also advises Senator Josh Hawley, the most vocal Senator on this subject. Not all politicians are guided by polls, but they are guided in how they talk about issues by polls. And it is very clear that there’s a shift going on in the way that politicians talk about Silicon Valley and Social Media, and that’s definitely showing up in their internal polls.
Ben further illustrated how censorship has likely grown from a strictly online concern to a kitchen table issue:
If you want to know why, just consider this: internet activists hear about people like Steven Crowder. What you don’t hear about is the local realtor who put a Trump sign in their lawn, and because of that, the neighborhood listserv and Nextdoor app filled up with people campaigning to nuke their Google mentions, respond to their Facebook page with constant harassment, and deface their ads in the neighborhood, calling them a white supremacist. That is not a major story. It is not even a minor story. But it is the sort of story that radicalizes a church, a community, a group of likeminded people… and then you start looking for politicians who take this issue on.
Also consider, if you must, the White House’s heavy focus on social media censorship. It’s true this president dwells in the Twitter bubble, but “most red Americans” listen to him, and he’s often better at tapping into the concerns of the electorate than those of us behind our keyboards.
To be sure, the priorities of our conservative politicians and media outlets aren’t always in line with the priorities of the Republican electorate. I don’t think most Republicans are freaking out over Crowder, and I agree that concerns over censorship have not meaningfully impacted the market. I disagree that either of those points indicates average Republicans don’t care much about the issue, especially given the mounting attention it’s received from Fox News, high-profile GOP politicians, and a president popular with his party.
To assert with such confidence that “most red Americans either don’t know or don’t care about social-media censorship” seems very unwise indeed, especially in light of previous failures to develop an accurate and complete understanding of the Republican base.