Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently lamented the rise of domestic extremism in the Washington Post. "We pride ourselves on the institutions that have evolved over hundreds of years," Clapper said, adding that "legal institutions, the rule of law, protection of citizens' liberty, privacy" were "under assault."
Clapper's concerns would sound more convincing if the organization he once headed had not worked to undermine those very same institutions in countries around the world, and if it had not historically undermined them in the U.S. as well. (He also perjured himself before Congress.)
"We haven't formed the language, or the mental models, needed to deal with the deeper implications of social media censorship."
His statements came as an array of Democratic politicians and commentators called for new measures to restrict the flow of information on social media. Their fears of the right are understandable, but they are summoning something even more frightening into being. These calls for a digital media crackdown promote a form of censorship unprecedented in human history: the total control of both private and public communications, dictated by the government and enforced by corporations.
Liberals are leading the change. Groups I've idolized, like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), are cheering for "stronger regulations and deplatforming of officials that promote not only disinformation but hate." SPLC president Margaret Huang added that these measures were "effective."
Effective? Maybe. But the price is steep, and there are other paths forward. The other paths are not guaranteed "effective"—democracy is rarely as efficient as dictatorship—but we must choose between the safety of totalitarianism or the risks that come with democracy.
New Tech, New Censorship
It's become a cliché that "we need to think in new ways about new technologies." It's not always true. Some of the best analogues for tech monopolism come from the past: the Gilded Age and its robber barons, or the monopolies of the 20th century.
But it's true in another, important way: We haven't formed the language, or the mental models, needed to deal with the deeper implications of social media censorship. Social media serve as news channels, and as personal communication tools so ubiquitous they've partly displaced telephones and have nearly eliminated personal letters.
Our cognition hasn't caught up with the implications of this change. That's one of the reasons so many Democrats, including Barack Obama and Rep. Adam Schiff of California, attacked Edward Snowden for revealing that U.S. intelligence was tracking hundreds of millions of emails. That form of spying didn't trouble them—or, apparently, those voters who remained unmoved by Snowden's revelations.
What intelligence agencies did (and what Clapper lied to Congress about) was the digital equivalent of breaking into post offices every night and photographing millions of personal letters. Even if spies didn't steam them all open—They're not all suspicious and, besides, who has the staffing budget for that?—many of the people who were indifferent to Snowden's information would probably have been outraged. The older ones among them were undoubtedly horrified by stories of the Soviet and East German intelligence agencies opening and censoring personal mail.
Reading email header information is the moral equivalent of sifting through your mail to see who you're writing to and who's writing to you. Opening an email is the moral equivalent of opening a letter. Unfortunately, our moral reasoning hasn't kept pace with our technology.
Monopolies of the Mind
Social media censorship is the next step in high-tech rights violations. Many social media users picture their timelines are a kind of party line. But "calls" are routinely erased—or, rather, are never placed. The "listeners" don't know they've missed something, and the "caller" never knows their message wasn't heard. Topic searches on Facebook (as well as in Google) are similarly censored without users' knowledge. When search results are suppressed, it's as if the unseen links never existed.
These corporations control a broader spectrum of human experience than any entity in history. Newspapers, radio, and television don't control personal communications. Bell Telephone, which was broken up in one of our countries most significant antitrust cases, didn't provide the news and information that shaped people's understanding of their world. Even at the height of its power, "Ma Bell" (as it was known) had no power to censor what was said on its phone lines—much less to hide the fact that a call was placed. Social media can do all these things and more.
"These corporations control a broader spectrum of human experience than any entity in history."
The power that comes with these combined roles is unprecedented. These corporations are economic monopolies like their predecessors. But they're also, in a very real sense, monopolies of the mind. Their censorship is even more pernicious than that of past regimes. Thought control is evolving with technology.
Nevertheless, some Democrats are calling for even sterner censorship measures, from pressuring tech companies to calling for Fox News' removal from cable outlets. It is a paradox of the present moment that most of these leaders would probably describe themselves as "liberal." Oxford Languages defines that word as follows:
1. willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one's own; open to new ideas.
2. relating to or denoting a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.
Almost nothing about this definition squares with these repressive proposals. (The exception is "free enterprise," which fits all too well.)
In a January 22 press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was careful to append the adjective "violent" each time she used the word "extremism," as if to signal that extremist ideas alone are not being targeted. That caution is welcome, as was her reference to "our respect for constitutionally protected free speech and political activities." But Psaki's words still cause concern.
Psaki announced that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would lead the "comprehensive threat assessment" effort. That's worrisome, to say the least. Under Clapper's direction, the same office spied on Americans and dishonestly placed some of the blame for the 2016 election on the left (including Black Lives Matter). (His old job is now held by Avril Haines, who has been dogged by criticism of her past work in illegal drone attacks and suppressing reports of CIA-led torture.)
Psaki also said the effort would "draw on the analysis from across the government and as appropriate, non-governmental organizations"—which appears to signal the involvement of some of the same shadowy groups that have been employed by tech corporations for past censorship efforts.
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Psaki then talks about the "building of an NSC capability to focus on countering domestic violent extremism," including "a policy review effort to determine how the government can share information better about this threat, support efforts to prevent radicalization, disrupt violent extremists networks, and more."
Psaki added that the "NSC convened process will focus on addressing evolving threats, radicalization, the role of social media, opportunities to improve information sharing, operational responses, and more."
Phrases like "prevent radicalization" and "evolving threats" signal the true intent of such measures: to ramp up spying on groups and individuals that are considered potentially violent—that is, that have done nothing violent yet. They are being spied on and censored for "pre-crime" (to borrow a term from "The Minority Report").
That logic has been used against left groups over and over, including adamantly nonviolent ones like Quakers peace groups. The left was also the primary target when the CIA and FBI violated the public's civil liberties in the 1960s. The kinds of people who conducted those actions are now being asked to lead Biden's efforts, despite their failure to show "respect for constitutionally protected free speech and political activities" in the past. (Some have even been lionized by the Democratic "resistance.")
Facebook's covert suppression of left-wing websites had already been revealed when Obama-era official Samantha Power, now nominated to head the Agency for International Development, wrote a Washington Post op-ed demanding that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg "take far more drastic steps" to suppress speech she considers destructive.
As for "preventing radicalization"—radicalism, at least the leftist kind, is an honorable American tradition. Biden's 2020 campaign called on once-radical ideas like feminism, unionism, and Black Lives Matter. Radicalism is the crucible of new ideas and constructive change. What new ideas of the future would be lost if they were indiscriminately "prevented"?
Journalist and media critic Alan MacLeod points out that 52 percent of Americans get news on Facebook. He writes:
For years, (Facebook) has at least partially outsourced its news feed algorithm cultivation to the Atlantic Council, a NATO cutout organization funded by the U.S. government and headed and controlled by former CIA chiefs. Thus, the government already has significant control over the content on America's most important media platform.
MacLeod adds: "Zuckerberg also recently admitted that in 2017 he changed Facebook's algorithm to deliberately throttle traffic to left-wing alternative news sites, even those as mainstream as Mother Jones."
Jon Queally of Common Dreams rounded up some of the voices against the censorship of the New York Post by Twitter last October. A few months later, Common Dreams reported that it had itself been seemingly targeted, with click-throughs from Facebook plunging from nearly 6 million in August 2020 to one-quarter that figure in September, despite rising political engagement in anticipation of the November election.
"Right-wing violence is a real concern. But calls for censorship are based on the unproven assumption that it can suppression can be a successful long-term strategy."
Similar moves have taken place at other onsite platforms, but disappointingly few left-leaning commentators have protested.
Many people are sympathetic to these calls, especially in the wake of the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill. That incident triggered the fear of incipient fascism. Right-wing violence is a real concern. But calls for censorship are based on the unproven assumption that it can suppression can be a successful long-term strategy. They also assume that this violence can only be fought through suppression, as opposed to democratic engagement.
Even if it could be proved that drastic censorship reduces the threat of right-wing violence, would it be worth it? Are we prepared to sacrifice our civil liberties—and our freedom of thought—to achieve that goal?
The Secret Word
Name-calling is a scoundrel's game, but there no avoiding the fact that there's already a word for an alliance of government and corporate forces that seeks to control the populace. That word is fascism.
The Democrats and media liberals calling for this censorship would undoubtedly be horrified at the thought. Let's hope so; that means they might stop before it's too late.
There are other ways to address right-wing extremism. They're messy, they're slow, and there's no guarantee they'll work. It would take thousands of words to lay them out, but here's a start: First, tech corporations can change their algorithms so that they no longer reward the human amygdala for generating hate and fear. (There may be some role for media literacy programs for "fifth graders and 50-year-olds," as Cynthia Miller-Idriss of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University puts it—although ideological bias seems like an almost insurmountable challenge for such programs.)
Second, Democratic politicians could build a clear and unambiguous agenda to meet people's needs, rather than suppressing the voices of a frustrated populace. And, lastly, more of us can engage with those that disagree with us, trusting that most people will make a good decision with good information.
I know, I know. It's a long shot. But it's the best shot we've got, the best we've ever had. It's called democracy.