By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
I was leafing through the overnight Twitter feed over breakfast a couple of months ago when the screen on my iPad abruptly went blank. I quickly discovered that my Twitter account, @thefloutist, no longer existed. In an instant there was no trace of it—no more photograph, no more count of those I was “following,” no more “followers,” no more messages, no more history. It was as if those monitoring the traffic at Twitter had borrowed airbrushes from Stalin’s security police; I had been “disappeared.”
What has befallen @thefloutist grows more common as we speak. And we had better understand the dangers of erasures of this kind. Step by step, powerful social media platforms are eliminating diversity of opinion from our public discourse in the name of a single, imposed version of the world we live in. This is not @thefloutist’s problem: It is America’s problem.
Here is the notice Twitter provided when I looked into the matter:
Abusive Tweets or behavior: We may suspend an account if it has been reported to us as violating our Twitter Rules surrounding abuse. When an account engages in abusive behavior, like sending threats to others or impersonating other accounts, we may suspend it temporarily or, in some cases, permanently.
I am not the threatening sort, and readers have my word I’m neither an abuser nor an impersonator. But this does not appear to matter. I must assume after three unanswered appeals, filed per Twitter’s instructions, that I am among the permanently suspended. I will never know why, not on paper. I will never be able to discuss this matter with anyone at Twitter, either by telephone or email. But since I used Twitter chiefly to leverage my foreign affairs commentaries, I conclude with some certainty Twitter does not approve of my critiques of the official orthodoxies.
In the social media universe—Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Reddit, and so on— @thefloutist is a casualty of what is called “content moderation.” Those on the receiving end of this radically antidemocratic business skip the euphemism and call this what it is: An ever more pernicious censorship regime being put upon us. Our republic’s drift in this direction has been evident for some time to those paying attention; now, it worsens at an alarming rate. Our crumbling republic is well on the way to a system of routine suppression of free speech commonly associated with the Soviet Union or its East European satellites during what we now have to call Cold War I, our purported leaders having led us into Cold War II.
Apple-pie censorship, let’s call it.
Note the language in Twitter’s notice of my “suspension”—the conditional verbs and the spongy phrases. Twitter may suspend an account, I may have been abusive, I may have trafficked in never-defined threats, a suspended account may or may not be restored. This is a bureaucratic device that dates to imperial China, when mandarins wrote plenty of laws, all phrased such that they could be interpreted however it suited the court on a given occasion. The point was to preserve maximum prerogative and maximum control as laws were imposed upon imperial subjects.
Same thing, really. It is by way of tricks such as this that apparatchiks at Twitter and other social media, who are wholly unqualified to judge work such as mine so far as I can make out, are threatening our press freedoms, the First Amendment, and at the horizon what remains of our democratic polity.
This is what I mean when I say @thefloutist’s fate is our shared problem. “It can’t happen here” is a presumption we no longer have the luxury of indulging.
Mine is an illustrative case, one among numerous at this point. Three writers at Consortium News, where I publish regularly, have so far been banished from the Twitter rolls. YouTube, to take another case among the many, has taken down 70,000 videos and 9,000 channels, never to be seen again, by its own description targeting those who question official accounts of the crisis in Ukraine.
“The first and probably most paramount responsibility is making sure that people who are looking for information about this event can get accurate, high-quality, credible information on YouTube,” Neil Mohan, YouTube’s chief product officer, said when he explained this “unprecedented action” in an interview with The Guardian last month.
“Accurate, high-quality, credible information:” Let us consider the implications of Neil Mohan’s thought, as he does not appear to have done so himself.
Straight off the top, since when is the quality of someone’s work, or even its accuracy, indeed, a criterion by which it can be censored? Right behind this is the question I have already suggested. Who are they who appoint themselves qualified judges of what is accurate, credible, and so on? By what authority do they assume this role? I do not wish to be offensive to those employed in Silicon Valley, but here I will dare to take the risk. Based on my admittedly limited exposure to those now serving as America’s censors, these are tech-obsessed gadget addicts who are not well-read, have a poor grasp of history and ethics, and have no clue as to the responsibilities of social media operating in public space.
I am sure there are exceptions, maybe many. But the question of what is accurate and credible, let alone the larger question of censorship itself, is simply in the wrong hands.
Here I return briefly to my own case. It is pertinent to the point.
Your columnist served as a correspondent abroad for 30 years, chiefly for the (sadly defunct) International Herald Tribune, where I finished up as news editor of its Asian edition. In these capacities I was required to make scores of news judgments daily. I learned during those years the capacity—invaluable in the 21st century—to see from the perspectives of others. I taught students at three universities how to be better foreign correspondents and the value of discernment as the Jesuits use this term—the ability to think and judge as autonomous beings. I am now finishing my sixth book, as it happens a history of our press’s long decline and, among other things, the censorship crisis now upon us.
And now some nameless, faceless censors, knowing nothing about journalism and probably less about foreign affairs are ruling like Dominican inquisitors on the validity of my judgments?
Preposterous. But this is what these people have been licensed to do. Discernment, understanding how the world looks through the eyes of others: This is what America’s censors are erasing in the name of a mandatory conformity, a topic to which I will return.
There is also the question of impartiality, an implicit claim in the practice of so-called content moderation. Anyone imposing their idea of what is credible, accurate, and all the rest is by definition enforcing, at the behest of the power structure that gives them the authority to act, a form of speech control and, at the horizon, thought control.
Consider these statements. They date to April 2021, just over a year ago, and are an excellent illustration of the logical impossibility of impartial censorship:
We do classify, when it comes to information, what we consider authoritative content….
When we deal with information we want to make sure that the sources we’re recommending are authoritative….
When we’re dealing with sensitive topics we have to have information from authoritative sources so that the right and accurate information is viewed by our users first….
We’ve come a long way in our algorithm. We’re able to make sure users are getting information from sources that are very reliable….
I certainly understand where government is coming from…. Generally we’re in line with the overall approach.
That is Susan Wojcicki, the CEO at YouTube, in a stagey interview with Nicholas Thompson, the supercilious chief exec at The Atlantic. (And alas, how far The Atlantic has fallen.) Their exchange was featured in a Davos-sponsored “technology governance summit,” a phrase with an ominous ring. By all appearances this was a well-rehearsed opportunity for YouTube to introduce a new set of “community guidelines” to police “violative content,” in Wojcicki’s peculiar phrase.
Note Wojcicki’s obsession with “authoritative” information. Note her endearing presumption that YouTube is simply protecting us, as we must be protected, from the unreliable, the wrong, and the other than authoritative. YouTube is doing nothing of the kind. YouTube is waging the same war as most other social media against writers, webcasters, and others who hold critical or dissenting views or who simply cite inconvenient facts.
Readers can view the 29-minute interview here. It will be instructive to anyone who doesn’t understand what apple pie censorship looks and sounds like.
Note, too, the last bit about YouTube’s alignment with the government. Here we come to questions of legality and constitutionality that could scarcely be graver.
The argument in defense of social media censorship—although those making it will never use the term—rests on the premise that companies such as YouTube and Twitter are private (or publicly listed) and are under no obligation to maintain accounts of whom they disapprove. This short-circuits a civil-rights question, in my view. Any entity operating in public space does not have the right to indulge in discriminatory practices—again, my view.
And only my view. The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, in 2014, set a precedent by giving the Oklahoma company just this right. But does this apply to social media when they effectively operate as public utilities and, more saliently, when free speech is at issue?
Do Twitter and the others operate as private companies? This is the more serious question, and the answer, to anyone paying attention lately, has to be no, the line between Silicon Valley’s social media corporations and government has been blurred to the point it is nearly invisible.
It is well known that the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other social media companies have been grilled in Senate hearings at least a half-dozen times over the past few years. Senators such as California Democrat Dianne Feinstein have been bluntly clear in these encounters that if social media do not tighten the censorship screws, Congress will break them up under antitrust law.
Are Twitter, Yahoo!, and Facebook technology companies or media companies? The Chinese first forced this key issue in the early 2000s, when Yahoo! wanted to get into the mainland market. Living in Hong Kong at the time, I watched at close range as Yahoo!, along with others, caved to Beijing’s pressure and began to control content. What were indisputably technology companies operating digital infrastructures, not at all unlike Consolidated Edison, were suddenly in the publishing business.
Feinstein and her Senate colleagues, as they pointedly intimidated inexperienced bimbos such as Mark Zuckerberg, have done no differently. People with no understanding of media are now running media companies. It was wrong 20 years ago and it is wrong now.
There have been no Senate hearings on this question lately, if you have not noticed. This is because Senate Democrats have succeeded in forcing Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo! to do exactly as they wish. Case in point: The preposterous censoring of the New York Post prior to the 2020 election, when it published perfectly valid evidence of the Biden family’s gross corruptions deriving from a laptop the un-prodigal son, Hunter Biden, abandoned to a computer repair shop in Wilmington, Delaware.
People such as Susan Wojcicki are simply doing what they are told under threat. This is government censorship at one remove, and I have never heard a worthwhile argument to the contrary. Bringing the point to ground level, @thefloutist’s fate amounts to a constitutional infringement.
In the name of defending our democratic institutions, of course.
Consortium News, one of the first publications to appear on the internet, faces another variety of censorship. It is now being scrutinized by something called NewsGuard, an operation set up four years ago to rule—impartially, of course—on the credibility of news organizations. It accuses Consortium of publishing false claims that the U.S. backed the coup in Kiev that plunged Ukraine into crisis in 2014 and that neo–Nazi elements figure significantly in the Ukrainian power structure. Both of these facts are well-established and well-served by abundant evidence.
Joe Lauria, Consortium’s tenacious editor-in-chief, has responded at length to NewsGuard’s’s assertions. As he explains in a top-to-bottom account of the case, to be found here, NewsGuard’s allegations of disinformation rest on flagrant disinformation, as is often the case in our raging “information war.” But again, this may not matter: If NewsGuard rules against Consortium News, it will be rated by way of a color code. “Getting a red label,” Lauria writes, “means that potentially millions of people who have the NewsGuard extension installed and operating on their browsers will see the red mark affixed to websites on social media and Google searches.” NewsGuard says it has also sold its monitoring device to many libraries.
What is NewsGuard, such that it claims authority of this kind? It is pleased to acknowledge “partnerships” with the State Department and the Pentagon. One of its founders is Gordon Crovitz, a Wall Street Journal lifer with the ideology to match. Among its board members—almost incredible, this—are Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency; Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Secretary-General of NATO.
I will let these people and their associations speak for themselves.
For my money, NewsGuard is a grotesque re-rendering of Red Channels, the hyper-paranoid publication that found Communists and Comm-symps, as the Cold War I expression had it, everywhere in broadcast journalism and the entertainment industries. NewsGuard’s purpose in the context of Cold War II is roughly the same, the normalization of suppression.
The phenomenon I describe in pencil sketch takes many forms. Most of the major social media platforms—Twitter, Google, YouTube (a Google property), Facebook, Reddit—either take advice as to who and what to censor from “the intelligence community” (my all-time favorite euphemism) or have former spooks on the payroll who get the work done from the inside. Some have contracts such as NewGuard’s with State and Defense.
Consortium News, according to a remarkable piece by Kit Klarenberg and Max Blumenthal, published in The Grayzone last week, was also among the publications Homeland Security’s recently formed Disinformation Governance Board planned to discredit. The D.G.B., commonly nicknamed our Ministry of Truth, for now is “paused”—its director, Nina Jankowicz, having been found to have trafficked in disinformation operations during and since the Russiagate fiasco.
If it sounds like a circus, readers, this is what our declining imperium has made of our public discourse—an unfunny carnival.
Susan Wojcicki underscored another point we must not miss. Silicon Valley’s censors act according to the dictates of algorithms that determine, by way of digital monitoring, who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down. The immense power of social media derives not from the hacks who press the buttons when accounts such as @thefloutist are sent into oblivion, but from the diabolic computer instruments that tell them what to do.
It is by way of its algorithm that YouTube has created a variant of the system NewsGuard uses: There is approved content, “borderline content,” and “violative content.” In social media parlance, there is, in addition to straight-out censorship, “down-ranking” so that readers and viewers can’t find a given piece of work, and “shadow-banning,” whereby a writer or webcaster can post work but, unbeknownst to him or her, it is rendered invisible to everyone using that platform.
At the moment, those imposing the new censorship regime are swatting flies—making targets of this, that, or the other writer or publication. To those of us censored in this way, there are many disturbing indications that a more totalized system is in the making. Here is a Tweet from Marc Andreessen, the billionaire co-founder of Netscape, dated April 16:
I predict essentially identical censorship/deplatforming policies across all layers of the legacy Internet stack. Client-side & server-side ISPs, cloud platforms, CDNs, payment networks, client OSs, browsers, email clients. With only rare exceptions. The pressure is intense.
I do not know precisely what event prompted this frightening thought, but I have no trouble imagining that Andreessen, who remains an influential figure in Silicon Valley, knows whereof he Tweets. Shortly after his note, indeed, Paypal blocked Consortium’s account, through which it took donations (and paid its columnists). It also seized Consortium’s balance until shrill public objections forced Paypal to restore it.
What we witness, if this is not already clear, is a full-scale attack on independent media. And it is the Ukraine crisis that appears to have both created an opening for, and prompted, its escalation. The connection here is important to grasp. The proxy war the Biden administration wages against Russia is in my estimation a declining empire’s shoot-the-moon moment. It is also an open declaration that Cold War II has begun. Dissension at home is a danger in such circumstances, just as it was when the Truman administration set Cold War I in motion 75 years ago.
What concerns me as much as the censorship phenomenon itself is how few Americans seem at all aware of it—and among those who are, how many of these approve. To understand this and why it is important, let us go back some way into American history.
There is the question of conformity, as earlier mentioned. The land of the free may raise individuality to the status of an “ism,” but America’s singular insistence on the individual’s submission to convention and orthodoxy seems to me essential to the effectiveness of the censorship regime and its public acceptance.
This story began long ago. Here is de Tocqueville in the first volume of Democracy in America:
In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fé but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution…. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused him. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone.
It has proven a short step on from de Tocqueville’s early observation to the self-censorship rampant in the American press at least since Cold War I’s onset. Self-censorship among journalists is another old story, but it is worse now than at any time in my professional years, of which there are many. What distinguishes our moment is that self-censorship is no longer sufficient. If independent publications such as Consortium News, The Grayzone, and, indeed, ScheerPost share one attribute among them, it is their refusal to bow to conformity, to censor themselves, or to allow the creep of externally imposed censorship—Soviet-style censorship, we can say with justification—go unopposed.
This is why the war against independent publications now intensifies—and why many journalists working in corporate-owned media cheerlead it—a perversity that will ever after astonish me. This is combat for control of “the narrative”—a war they never heretofore had to wage.
It is also why our independent media bear responsibilities outsized to their resources. Self-censoring media are by definition compromised. , unethical purveyors of information presenting a version of our world dictated by orthodoxy and ideology and at odds with reality. Independent media are all that now stand between us and a dangerous state of collective blindness and ignorance—this at a moment we can afford neither.