Until recently, worrying about the power of large corporations was the left’s job. It makes sense. Conservatives have historically been champions of the market, and large corporations have usually stayed out of the culture wars. They once reflected American culture, rather than shaping it. Big government was always the bigger threat to our liberty.
Now, as social media giant Twitter bans the personal account of the president of the United States and even deletes tweets from @POTUS, the account owned by the U.S. government, one is forced to wonder who is more powerful, Washington or Silicon Valley? Twitter, acting in routine combination with Facebook, now claims the power to decide whether the people should be able to read the words of their own government.
Although it was published in September, Allum Bokhari’s prescient book, #DELETED: Big Tech’s Battle to Erase the Trump Movement and Steal the Election, explains how the relationship between corporate power and the American people has changed for the worse. As Big Tech companies have grown to monopoly strength, they have abandoned what pretenses they ever held of neutrality and are now, in Bokhari’s telling, trying to determine the results of the nation’s elections.
Companies typically have profit as their goal. That tends to mean they stay out of politics, reflecting a broad middle ground designed to alienate the fewest people and get business from the most.
But the customers of Facebook, Twitter, and Google are not you; you and your personal data are their product. Their customers are the advertisers to whom they sell that data. That, combined with their internet oligopoly, creates weird, never-before-seen incentives. They have no need to care about your opinion. Instead, they will use their power to shape it.
The Revolving Door
Bokhari lays out the rise of Big Tech in 16 briskly paced chapters, beginning with the close relationships between tech leaders and the wing of the Democratic Party concentrated in New York, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley. There has always been a revolving door between industries and the branch of government that regulates them, but the growth of government regulation, coinciding with the consolidation of power in a few left-leaning constituencies, elevated the practice to a high art.
During Barack Obama’s term of office, Bokhari found that 55 employees from Google alone joined the administration, while 197 government employees left to join Google. Other tech companies could not compete with Google’s numbers, but the pattern was the same. And it still is. Kamala Harris’s brother-in-law is Uber’s top lawyer. Her former press secretary is a senior communications manager at Twitter. A former senior counsel in her Senate office is now a lobbyist for Amazon. The list goes on.
The revolving door is not, as was once the case, an expedient alliance between regulator and regulated that, if morally fraught, at least makes business sense. The Big Tech-Big Government alliance is different. They have the same goals—molding people into a more leftist mindset—and share a common culture. Young, highly educated, wealthy, and above all liberal, they all hold a similar vision for the country and the world, one often at odds with American tradition and history.
That convergence of vision is not necessarily a conspiracy. For many, it is likely the predictable result of living in a bubble. If nearly all of the people you talk to and work with every day hold similar views, it is natural to believe they represent a majority of the country. People who hold contrary opinions seem weird and aberrant.
For more culturally isolated people, any variance from their version of the mainstream is bizarre, even sinister. It becomes hard to imagine and benign motive for disagreement. Those who do become a threat to be converted or, failing that, isolated and made irrelevant.
How do they isolate ideological foes? Bohkari discusses the ways social media networks flex their monopoly muscles. First, they work with leftist activists to identify the “serial misinformers and right-wing activists,” as one leaked memo described them. Using outside “watchdogs” to validate their own views leads to a far harsher application of the rules to right-wing accounts than to any other. Left-wing activists have to work a lot harder to get banned in the social media echo chamber.
When the banned join another fledgling social network instead, they are doing what all of the libertarians say they should. “Don’t like Twitter? Join another network. Or start your own!” But the story of Gab, a competitor to Twitter, shows the market failure in that scenario. Because the first “big names” to join the site were far-rightists banned by Twitter, the whole network was smeared as a home for racist trolls, not fit for decent folks.
Whether that is true or not when it is first uttered, it soon becomes true as regular users leave the site rather than be accused of consorting with racists. Apple and Google, which control 98 percent of mobile downloads, banned the Gab app from their respective download stores after pressure from the same radical groups. The “free-speech alternative” withers and dies.
The monopoly two-step played out again this week. Twitter purged thousands of pro-Trump accounts and the left-libertarian response has been, “So what? If you don’t like it, join Parler.” But that same day, Google eliminated Parler, the latest Twitter alternative, from the Play Store and the other half of the duopoly, Apple, quickly followed suit.
Ro Khanna, a member of Congress, even called for Amazon to force Parler out of its web services arm, so that even if you could figure out how to download it, it would not function. Amazon gladly complied, carrying out the suppression of ideas that Khanna and the rest of Congress could not. The app’s owners are currently looking for a new host.
The strategy to maintain the monopoly works because many of the first people banned by Twitter were pretty awful, and a site that features them as its leading lights will be seen as a reflection of that. Bokhari underplays this problem at times. He is right to mock Facebook and Twitter’s characterization of Alex Jones and Laura Loomer as “dangerous,” and to scorn how they call their censorship efforts by the Orwellian title of “trust and safety.”
But even if those efforts are unjust, the people at whom they are directed are often deeply unpleasant. Jones is not “maybe” a loon, he is definitely a loon. That doesn’t mean he should be silenced by Big Tech, but let’s not pretend he’s not deeply unpleasant in his own right.
Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union used to stand up for free speech even for people who were, in their view, wrong and bad. The ACLU even suggested this week, haltingly, that Big Tech may have gone too far. But that sort of broad-minded liberalism is on the decline.
Part of the problem is that in the past, we feared only that the government would trample on free speech. No one else really had the power to do so. We mostly won the battle against state censorship, but now corporations have grown so powerful that they are better able to suppress speech than the government. It’s a new problem that requires new solutions, before unelected tech oligarchs control the flow of information for the entire country.
The Clamp Down
This book focuses on the threat to Trump, but Big Tech, having accumulated power, will not use it only against him. New political opponents will emerge and the same justifications will be given for silencing them.
People are growing wise to the problem, though, and the politicians on the right who once praised men like Mark Zuckerberg for their entrepreneurial spirit are now waking up to the danger they pose. Many accepted, or even celebrated social media companies banning Jones in 2018, but that tip of the wedge has now widened into more overt restrictions on conventional right-wing opinion, first blocking the New York Post, a venerable mainstream news daily, because it posted a story critical of Joe Biden’s ne’er-do-well son, and now banning the president of the United States.
How much more control will social media companies seize now that Trump has lost his re-election bid? Their fear of right-wing populism—not helped by the disgraceful riot at the Capitol last week—will surely cause them to clamp down harder. They will certainly not surrender their power, not when the Biden administration will be packed with like-minded progressives who support their efforts.
These new malefactors of great wealth are as dangerous as any government censor. The next decades will require us to grapple with that.