For better or worse, social media is the new public square. Of adults, 68% use Facebook, 73% use YouTube, and a quarter use Twitter. The numbers are much higher for adults under 50. Two-thirds of adults and roughly 4 in 5 under 50 use social media to consume news. Three-quarters of Facebook users are on the site every day, and Twitter users have a disproportionate influence on the media because so many journalists are on the service.
The size and scale of social media companies exploded primarily because they presented themselves as open platforms — blank slates. Google, Facebook, and Twitter all characterized their products as engines for social improvement. “We think of Twitter as the global town hall,” said former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. “We are the free speech wing of the free speech party.”
Costolo was Twitter’s chief executive from 2010 until 2015 and the immediate predecessor of current CEO Jack Dorsey. Twitter’s general manager in the United Kingdom, Andy Yang, likewise described Twitter as the “free speech wing of the free speech party” in March 2012. Google became a multibillion-dollar company by offering a portal for free, unrestricted information to anyone with access to the internet; famously, its original motto was “Don’t be evil.” An internal Facebook memo circulated in June 2016 stated that at Facebook, “we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.”
The public has given these three tech companies (and others) enormous power to select the information we read, share, and discuss with our neighbors and friends. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the role they play in our lives that we fail to notice that Big Tech is sifting through the available information and narrowing, and prioritizing, our choices. Although Facebook, Google, and Twitter once touted themselves as bastions of democracy and free speech, they are now openly moving toward direct censorship and media manipulation – and specifically targeting conservative ideas and personalities.
They have already acquiesced to their new censorship fetish. In March 2018, Google circulated an internal memo that instructed employees on the benefits of censorship. In the memo, which was titled “The Good Censor,” Google conceded that while the internet was “founded upon utopian principles of free speech,” free speech is no longer en vogue. “Tech companies are adapting their stance towards censorship” in direct response to “the anxiety of users and governments.” The memo said that “tech firms have gradually shifted away from unmediated free speech and towards censorship and moderation” but framed that shift as a positive development. One major way that tech companies are “stepping into the role of moderator” is by “significantly amping up the number of moderators they employ — in YouTube’s case increasing the number of people on the lookout for inappropriate content to more than 10,000.” It argued that censorship was necessary partly because of users “behaving badly.”
The most alarming part of the missive, however, was that it spoke approvingly of foreign governments that were censoring online speech. Google framed the acts as “taking steps to make online spaces safer, more regulated, and more similar to their offline laws. Protected from hate speech on the street? Now you are on the net too …” Twitter has completely and publicly abandoned its brand as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” with Dorsey claiming the whole “free speech wing” thing was one giant “joke.” His company, once seemingly devoted to the free expression of its users, now says it is prioritizing making users feel safe from others’ speech. Facebook, too, is openly rebranding itself as a benevolent censor. Here’s what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees in April 2018 (emphasis added):
Overall, I would say that we’re going through a broader philosophical shift in how we approach our responsibility as a company. For the first 10 or 12 years of the company, I viewed our responsibility as primarily building tools that, if we could put those tools in people’s hands, then that would empower people to do good things. What I think we’ve learned now across a number of issues, not just data privacy, but also fake news and foreign interference in elections, is that we need to take a more proactive role and a broader view of our responsibility. It’s not enough to just build tools. We need to make sure that they’re used for good. And that means that we need to now take a more active view in policing the ecosystem and in watching and kind of looking out and making sure that all of the members in our community are using these tools in a way that’s going to be good and healthy.
Three forces are driving Big Tech’s online censorship.
Two are external and related: market pressures and de-platforming campaigns by liberal activists and journalists.
The third pressure is internal: Silicon Valley is staggeringly one-sided politically.
Profit margins and market pressures are crucial levers that left-wing ideologues use to pull tech giants and other corporations in the direction of censorship. Companies want to avoid controversy, and, in the era of outrage mobs, that means avoiding offending the Left, which controls most of the cultural institutions in America. That’s part of the reason why massive companies are embracing left-wing politics in advertising, such as what Gillette did with its “toxic masculinity” ad. Left-wing activists amplify those pressures with smear campaigns and boycotts intended to rattle advertisers and investors, forcing the hands of tech companies. If you convince corporate marketing agencies that advertising on Facebook is risky, you can be certain that Facebook will take some form of action to shed controversy and reassure investors.
The external pressures of left-wing activists are compounded by the internal pressures of the companies’ employees, who want Big Tech to embrace censorship against nonliberal opinions as a moral and political necessity. The internal office cultures at Facebook, Google, and Twitter have always been overwhelmingly left-leaning, but the election of Donald Trump as president has made them far more radical. I told one Silicon Valley insider that I thought tech culture now resembled the left-wing, activist culture on college campuses. He replied, “They’re the exact same people.” Their political opinions are certainly monochromatic. Of the $8.1 million that tech industry workers donated to presidential candidates during the 2016 campaign, 95% of it went to Hillary Clinton. Among donations from the Silicon Valley area specifically, 99% went to Clinton.
So, maybe it’s not surprising that Google, Facebook, and Twitter have all become vehicles for left-wing activism. The companies encourage employees to bring their “authentic selves” to work. One Silicon Valley executive told me, “We want people to … bring their entire perspective and all their values to work, and in the positive sense, that means getting rid of a huge distinction between my professional life and my personal life.” For left-wing activists in Silicon Valley, their professional, personal, and political lives are all one. That’s why Twitter launched an “intersectionality” initiative for its employees and Google gives millions to left-wing causes — to signal its allegiance to the tribe.
In 2017, the nonprofit Lincoln Network conducted a survey of tech workers in Silicon Valley, including those employed at Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. The political leanings of those surveyed were more politically diverse than Silicon Valley’s overall population: 29% were liberal, 24% were libertarian, 22% were conservative, and 16% were centrist. But on one thing, they agreed: 75% of the liberals and 70% of the conservatives characterized their workplace as either “liberal” or “very liberal” and fewer than 2% of the survey-takers said their places of work were conservative.
Even some of the liberal respondents thought that left-wing intolerance had gone too far. One liberal tech worker said, “I witnessed repeated calls from managers and nonmanagers alike for people to be fired for the political views they expressed.” Another liberal employee said, “There are people who are looking for a reason to be offended, and any sort of disagreement would make them wonder if I’m a secret Trump supporter. The idea of ‘I agree with you 90%’ is not enough.” One self-identified libertarian said, “I have lost multiple talented colleagues who resigned rather than continue in the face of an increasingly extreme, narrow-minded, and regressive environment here at Google. It’s terrifying here. A real horror show. Every day could be my last.”
Eighty-nine percent of respondents who identified as “very conservative” said they didn’t feel comfortable expressing their opinions at work. “It’s a postmodern, secularist Silicon Valley viewpoint. Highly liberal. It’s motivated by changing the world masquerading as intellectualism,” said one conservative tech employee. A libertarian said “there were many groups devoted to identity politics” in his company, and every one of them was leftist. “If you’re not part of the liberal Democrat crowd, you’re an outsider. Talks are often politicized, whether overtly or not. The entire executive team leans in a certain direction, and you don’t want to be the odd one out for fear of being ostracized … Nobody who didn’t fit the company’s mold talked about their political views. The company was very homogenous in that sense.” One conservative employee said, “There is overwhelming internal support for leftist political candidates, policies, and ideas, and they are frequently expressed … There are zero to very few senior people who dare to speak up or represent an alternative (more conservative) point of view in company debates or policy decisions.”
This groupthink affects everything that Big Tech does, every decision it makes, every program it releases. As a former Google engineer noted, Google’s algorithms reflect the assumptions and biases of their creators. The discussion about tech platforms and political bias often (and understandably) centers on what is or isn’t allowed on Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, but the other half of the picture is what is and isn’t prioritized on a platform. Broadly speaking, tech companies censor users and content in two ways.
The first, which we’ll call “hard censorship,” is pretty straightforward: deleting content or suspending users.
The second method, which we’ll call “soft censorship,” involves tech companies making content harder to find.
Hard censorship is tearing down a roadside billboard; soft censorship is making the billboard difficult to see by erecting other billboards in front of it. Soft censorship by tech companies can be just as effective as hard censorship. Studies show that people rarely click past the first page of Google or YouTube results. Even fewer click past the second or third page. So, pushing a link off the first page (or two or three) of Google is nearly the same as removing it from Google results altogether. The same is true with your Facebook and Twitter feeds: Companies don’t have to delete content to make sure you don’t see it.
Since 2016, every major tech company, including Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter, has been busy retooling algorithms or news feeds or monetization standards in ways that benefit liberals and sideline conservatives. Big Tech also partners with left-wing groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center to “flag” supposedly problematic content. The group falsely labels individual conservatives as “extremists” and conservative organizations as “hate groups” and then promotes more restrictive content policies against alleged “hate speech.”
To give you some idea of the advocacy group’s standards, it once accused Ben Carson of being an “extremist” for stating his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. Immersed in scandals of its own, the organization has been widely discredited. But it still works closely with Google engineers who design the digital tools and algorithms to police hate speech on YouTube as part of Google’s “Trusted Flaggers” program. Google kept its collaboration with the Southern Poverty Law Center a secret, hidden behind a confidentiality agreement, and the group only admitted the partnership after I broke the story. All of these partnerships are occurring while the advocacy group publicly keeps pressure on Facebook, Google, and Twitter, calling for them to do more to combat “hate speech” on their platforms, which invariably means giving the organization more power in its private dealings with the companies. The Southern Poverty Law Center led five other left-wing groups in forming a coalition called “Change the Terms” that aims to pressure all major technology service providers into setting speech codes governing what their clients say both on and off their platforms.
The coalition demands that each company agree to implement a specific set of policies already drafted by the activists. Among the required changes: empowering third-party organizations (such as, say, the Southern Poverty Law Center) to flag “hateful” actors. The activists’ targets aren’t limited to Facebook, Google, and Twitter (although those companies are certainly on the list) but also include credit card companies and crowdfunding sites. Once a company caves to the pressure and agrees to adopt the left-wing contract, it has essentially deputized the coalition to decide who can stay on its platform or use its services and who must leave. Once the contract is official, the activists immediately shift gears to identify the users or customers the company is now required to ban from its platform. Left-wingers’ plan for weaponizing tech platforms bears a resemblance to the “social credit score” system adopted by the Chinese government. Only instead of the government monitoring your private behavior and limiting your access to society as a result, it’s a collective of left-wing advocacy groups partnered with multinational corporations.
First Amendment rights do not protect you from private organizations’ limitations on speech. It’s a devious strategy, and it’s working. Media Matters is a left-wing political group devoted to silencing conservative viewpoints in the media. For much of its history, it focused on attacking Fox News, but in recent years, it targeted conservative voices online as well. Media Matters presented a 44-page memo to liberal donors at a January 2017 summit that bragged about its plans to work with Facebook and Google to destroy nonliberal media outlets. The memo argued that enlisting Big Tech in the left-wing campaign to eliminate conservative media is essential if liberals hope to defeat Trump in 2020. Media Matters promised to accomplish exactly that. “Key right-wing targets will see their influence diminished as a result of our work,” it promised.
Leftists don’t need to banish every conservative from social media; they only need to dominate social media the way they dominate the mainstream media. They’re OK with discussion that takes place within boundaries they set (as on MSNBC) and so long as they win the elections that matter to them (such as the White House). Since Nov. 8, 2016, they have shifted the digital landscape against conservative voices. By Nov. 3, 2020, they will have transformed (or rigged) social media in ways that will have far-reaching implications for America.