Policing the marketplace of ideas
How woke pressure groups are subverting big tech
Has social media censorship gone too far? This was the question many were forced to confront (yet again) last week, after Twitter banned Politics for All, a popular news aggregation service, for having “violated the rules on platform manipulation and spam”. The event united commentators from across the political spectrum in their bafflement and outrage; who or what shall be banned next, they wondered.
In recent years, tech censorship of political accounts, from Twitter banning Donald Trump to YouTube’s temporary removal of left-leaning website Novara Media, has been a subject of controversy, but Politics for All’s removal was noteworthy, given that the account is generally regarded as politically neutral. Additionally, it comes at a time when tech giants take increasingly strong positions around what’s regarded as “misinformation”, especially in relation to Coronavirus. In one of the most over-the-top examples, YouTube took down a video of David Davis outlining worries he had over vaccine passports.
Those who self-censored the most were Brexiteers and/or Conservatives
These bans, though quite the punishment, seem finite and immediate – a political pundit loses his or her voice, the world moves on. And yet, perhaps a less talked about but growing possibility, as tech giants extend their silencing powers, is that their decisions start to have commercial effects. The loss of an audience, even if for a political account, is clearly something that can have this kind of impact. But moreover, as the world moves online, and the tech giants view it as their job to choose who has “good” or “bad” views, the more potential there is for Silicon Valley to stifle trade, as well as financially incentivise a worldview.
This idea of commercial censorship has always been of some interest to me, ever since I investigated – in 2018 – artists who hide their opinions for commercial reasons. Those who self-censored the most were Brexiteers and/or Conservatives, who know their politics won’t go down well in the industries they represent. One only has to look at the case of Winston Marshall from Mumford & Sons – who received huge online backlash, having publicly praised a book by Andy Ngo, and felt compelled to quit his band – to see this phenomenon exists.
But will the internet exacerbate it? And is this already happening? I mentally returned to this idea when I saw a Twitter user say that they had been “permanently banned” from a New Zealand subreddit for recommending Kathleen Stock’s book, Material Girls. Although subreddits, I am told, run according to their creator’s (not Reddit’s) own rules, it reminded me of patterns we’ve seen elsewhere – also relating to books on transgenderism, one of the most contentious subject areas.
Last year, for instance, Abigail Shrier, who, like Stock, has written about transgenderism, in a book called Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, found her commercial activities under threat because of her views (suggesting that transgenderism trends among girls are the result of a social contagions). Amazon’s LGBT+ employee group, Glamazon, urged the company to drop the book on its website, on the grounds that it violated its policy against selling books “that frame LGBTQ+ as a mental illness.” Amazon overruled Glamazon in the end, yet the story is troubling, revealing the power of pressure groups within online companies who view it as their job to take positions on people’s morality – and whether they should be able to participate in the online marketplace.
Sellers will be motivated to hide their politics
Another similar incident occurred at Hachette UK, where employees threatened to stop work on JK Rowling’s new book due to her views on gender. As with Shrier, this was a “close shave” event; the company ultimately told its activist members that they would not get their way. But what happens when an author does not have the power of Rowling – or even Shrier, whose book sold well? What can we expect as these lobby groups become louder and more effective organisers?
I do not think it unrealistic to imagine in the future that online companies will take much stronger lines on who gets to trade. Amazon, for example, has its own director of book content risk, as well as its own “internal process for evaluating the appropriateness of books”. How long does it take until this criteria is extended, or the remit of what’s “appropriate” gets changed in some way?
Moreover, one imagines that – like the artists I spoke to in 2018 – sellers will be motivated to hide their politics, or, even worse, incentivised towards a worldview, so as to make themselves more commercially viable. Already LinkedIn and Instagram, among others, invite one to advertise their “pronouns”, an action which many people view as ideological, no matter what the latest series of Sex and the City, in which Miranda is invited to share her pronouns, tells us. But how many would go against their own convictions, and enter she/her in the box, if it bettered their trading position?
The Conservative counter-argument to this train of thought is, of course, that every online host can decide who can access to his platform, rather like a restaurant can choose who dines in its premises. But the trouble is, unlike restaurants, there aren’t many online platforms, and when someone is banned or cancelled, they are left with little other options to use instead. It is but another reason to worry about the monopolies. As with the loss of an innocuous news aggregator Twitter account, a two-tier trade society would be no fun at all.
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