White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki last week made a startling revelation from the White House press podium: that the major social media platforms take direction from the government in deciding what content to suppress, amplify, or remove.
On Thursday, Psaki casually made note of the fact that the White House was working in coordination with Facebook, flagging specific “problematic” posts for COVID-19 “misinformation.” She was joined by Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, whose office released a 22-page guidance urging platforms to “impose clear consequences for accounts that repeatedly violate platform policies.” Facebook later confirmed it is involved in “private exchanges” with the Biden administration on how to manage COVID-19 information on the platform.
What could have potentially been defended as a well-meaning effort to work with major speech outlets to combat certain inaccuracies about the efficacy of vaccines, however, quickly progressed beyond that. By Friday, the White House was pressuring companies to work together to ban users across multiple platforms. Efforts to ban “misinformation” about the COVID-19 vaccine, meanwhile, had evolved into banning “the latest narratives dangerous to public health.”
The problem with all of this, of course, is that the definition of misinformation is constantly changing to meet the needs of the powerful—whether that is the political needs of the party in charge, or the political or financial self-interest of the platforms.
Narrative Control Is The Real Power
Psaki’s revelation, as startling as it was, is clarifying. It remains a contested point in the debate over Big Tech whether these companies constitute “private enterprise” or if they’ve reached the level of indispensable services. But the Biden administration’s flippant acknowledgement that control of what is said on Facebook is central to their policy goals points toward the true status of these companies as essential corridors of speech.
It was for the same reason that Michelle Obama, when she decided that Donald Trump should be banned from social media, didn’t go to Congress to make her case, nor write an op-ed arguing for that position in a national newspaper—she issued a statement to Silicon Valley. Likewise, when congressional Democrats want to silence the influence of right-leaning speech, they threaten the social media companies with regulatory action to urge them to do more.
When a handful of companies take over the public square and dictate who can speak and what they can say—and, by extension, what people can hear—it fundamentally changes the nature of free speech as America has always understood it. But when the government exerts itself upon that power, dictating to compliant companies who can speak, and what can be seen, heard, and said, that, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out recently, is the taproot of fascism.
The Biden administration is telling Facebook which posts it regards as "problematic" so that Facebook can remove them.
This is the union of corporate and state power — one of the classic hallmarks of fascism — that the people who spent 5 years babbling about fascism support. https://t.co/U2Ee3DgXJe
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) July 15, 2021
That we have reached the point where the White House is proudly admitting to an effort to control who can speak and what can be said on the world’s biggest speech platforms should not be surprising to anyone who has been paying attention over the last year. The COVID-19 outbreak has provided something of a case study of all the ways in which government can outsource the censorship of speech it would otherwise be obligated to protect.
Chokepoints of Public Discourse
In America, social media platforms have taken over the once-democratized public square. Posts on Facebook, information sorting on Google (and by extension, YouTube), apps filtered through Apple and Google, journalists sourcing stories and angles on Twitter, and documentaries and books sold and viewed through Amazon, largely shape the parameters of how Americans take in news, organize community gatherings, access the market, search for information, form opinions, and petition and hear from their government.
At the same time, the federal government has come to understand that co-opting these companies, which effectively control the national narrative, is where real power of modern governance resides. But this is hardly a new discovery.
Centuries ago, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, the chronicler of early America Alexis de Tocqueville, and dystopian novelist George Orwell all foresaw the imminent danger that arose from concentrated control of speech, thought, and opinion, whether through the government, housed in corporations, or enforced by a tyranny of a majority. Modern dictatorships have borne out their thesis. Control of capital, agencies, resources, and weapons is secondary to total control of a national narrative. The latter dictates where the former will go.
Concentrated Economic Power Requires a Response
The power of narrative control, and its attendant ends of power over speech, thought, and access to the marketplace centralized in the Big Tech platforms, will always be irresistible to government, regardless of who is in charge. This is why the concentrated power of these platforms must be so urgently addressed.
Accepting the reality of these companies as the brokers of expression in a free society requires a public policy response. No more is “transparency of terms of service” or advocating for “user rights” a sufficient solution, not when the power of these companies has evolved into a de facto arm of the state.
The power that these companies have is explicitly structural. The control that Google and Facebook, in particular, exert over speech is downstream of their market power. It is only worth the government’s time to successfully co-opt a speech platform if that platform represents a central avenue of expression. If the scale of that market power is broken—that is, if Google filters information for 30 percent of America, instead of its current market share of 90 percent—the co-option of full narrative control is impossible, either by Google or the government.
This is why the right must get serious about a type of antitrust enforcement that can successfully manage this kind of concentrated economic control over speech, information, and market access. Lax enforcement of our antitrust laws has played a direct role in the cartel presently controlling our market for information.
In the Senate, there is now general consensus ranging from progressive Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, to libertarian-leaning Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that the status quo is insufficient, and statutory changes to enforcement must be made. Although the proposed solutions run across a spectrum, Congress must begin actively working toward that end.
But antitrust alone is not enough. How these companies operate must also be considered. While our discourse tends to treat these companies as speech platforms, which they are, they are also much more than that: Facebook and Google are massive digital advertising agencies and considered critical campaign infrastructure for political candidates.
Amazon is the biggest book retailer in the country, Apple and Google control the country’s app market, Facebook and Amazon are the primary access point for millions of small businesses, and newsrooms and other businesses throughout the country conform themselves to terms set by Google and Facebook for good results in search rankings and access to the valuable consumer data that now runs much of the digital economy.
Together, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook have concentrated not only the market for speech and expression, but represent the primary access points to the modern market and communications economy. How this is dealt with from a public policy perspective—by instituting common carrier laws, reshaping our legal framework for digital advertising, or regulating markets for data—is of vital consideration.
Our Self Government Must Act
In April, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued a concurrence that seemed to anticipate rising policy challenges presented by the union of corporate and state control over speech. “We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms,” he wrote.
In his statement, which suggested that social media platforms be regulated as common carriers, Thomas mused over previous times in which new technologies began to transform the manner in which a free society operated, from the railroad to the telegraph. At each juncture, he noted, it was our self-government that acted to assert the terms, rather than waiting for private companies to decide for us the means of our democratic engagement.
The country again finds itself at such an occasion. Corporate power is merging with state power at massive scale, in ways that ripple beyond speech and into the ability of individuals to access the levers of capitalism, and to openly question or dissent from government narratives without serious consequence. These are the bedrocks on which a pluralistic, diverse, and free society is built. In their absence, there is only a soft descent into tyranny.