This story originally appeared on Spring magazine on Apr. 8, 2021, and is shared with permission from Spring.
Big Tech has big power over freedom of expression—and that is a big problem.
Over the last several months, it has become quite apparent that Facebook and Twitter exercise an inordinate amount of control over the news and ideas we are exposed to. In the wake of the Capitol Hill riots by the far right, Big Tech companies took the unprecedented step of deplatforming the sitting president of the United States and ramping up their powers of censorship.
Now, no one should feel bad for Donald Trump or the far right. But the increased powers nakedly wielded by Big Tech companies are a major cause for concern for the left. Those of us who are engaged in political struggles that seek to upend the structures of racism, imperialism, and inequality often are advocating ideas outside the mainstream—a term which powerful Big Tech companies increasingly define. Thus, a crackdown on political expression that seeks to reign in ill-defined “extremism” inevitably means attacking the political expression of those who challenge existing power structures in our society. And this is a very dangerous thing.
Changing media habits
The ways in which news is being consumed is changing. Gone are the days where print publications and cable television dominate and drive the news cycle. Newspapers have long been in decline, but even in the last four years newspaper consumption has taken a nosedive. A recent survey showed that in 2016, 20% of Americans “often” got their news from newspapers, while in 2020 that number was down to 10% (with only 5% preferring newspapers over other media). Television news consumption has also fallen, with 40% of Americans in 2020 saying they “often” got their news from TV, down from 57% percent in 2016.
News consumed online, either via social media or through search engines or news websites, is now the dominant form of news consumption: 86% of respondents said they often or sometimes consume news via smartphones, computers, or tablets. News apps and websites, along with online searches, are the number one way in which people get their news online, but social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter make up a growing share of how people consume their news. 53% of surveyed adults in the U.S. often or sometimes get their news via social media. For people under 30, social media is far and away the preferred means by which people access the news.
The numbers in Canada show similar trends. Print and television have shown a steady decline in their audience over the last five years, as more people access their news via online sources and social media. Pre-pandemic polls show that over 50% of people in Canada get their news via social media platforms. The pandemic has likely increased this number.
All this is to say that social media companies have an increasing amount of power and control, much of it hidden, over how we consume our news. And they have been using this power in subtle and not so subtle ways to protect the status quo in our society and weaken political expression that aims to challenge that.
The power of the network
Social media networks and other Big Tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple leverage their scale and integration to dominate markets. The high number of users of these products creates a network effect, whereby the value of the network is increased as the user base grows. This creates monopolistic tendencies, making it harder for these companies to be replaced by competitors. In short, people use social media networks because other people also use them.
Baked into the network is a business model based on surveillance. Silicon Valley companies like Facebook make their money by gathering information about their users and selling it to advertisers.
While the level of surveillance and control wielded by Silicon Valley is staggering, the rise of social media has created real openings for the left. It has allowed organizers to expand our networks and build bigger audiences for our ideas over a much larger geographical space. It has also sped up the dissemination of ideas and information, which can be very useful for organizing.
The fact that social media is controlled by big Silicon Valley firms doesn’t mean the left should log off or not engage. To the contrary, changing media consumption habits mean the left can ill afford to disengage online. But there has to be more serious discussion about how to approach social media through an organizer’s lens. How can we build an audience on social media for radical ideas? How can we activate that audience to take action on the basis of those ideas? How can we push back against the toxic, individualizing tendencies of social media?
But, however thoughtful we are in engaging online, we still have to reckon with the growing authoritarian power that Big Tech has over political speech online. While these companies have always exercised some degree of control over political speech online, the level of control and outright censorship has grown.
Trump and Russiagate
In the wake of Trump’s narrow election victory in 2016, there was much hand wringing over how social media helped drive the right-wing extremism undergirding the Trump phenomenon. The existence of social media was blamed for the radicalization and polarization of part of the American electorate—a curious reversal from when liberals heralded the internet as increasing citizen democracy back in 2008 when Barack Obama was swept into office.
Liberals were keen to explain why Trump won and Clinton lost in a way that absolved them of any responsibility. They landed on two overlapping reasons: fake news and Russia.
There is no doubt that Trump used social media effectively to build a real base of support. But Trump’s rise cannot solely be explained by the rise of radicalization online due to fake news. Trump’s growing popularity in 2015 and 2016 has much more to do with the economic and social conditions existing in the United States— endless wars, a gutted social safety net, growing inequality and broken promises of a better future laid the groundwork for Trump, especially in key swing states and counties that had voted for Obama twice. Trump promised to end foreign wars and bring back jobs, while also appealing to white racial resentment.
When Trump pulled off his surprising electoral victory in 2016, liberals also immediately began spinning the story that Russia was to blame. Russia, it was claimed, had hacked the Democratic National Committee, run fake ads, supported Bernie Sanders and Trump and stoked extremism online. For the next four years this elaborate story was pushed in the mainstream media and congressional hearings were called. The story, of course, was absurd—based on little to no evidence and often recycling outright lies. But it was convenient.
From platform to publisher
The Russiagate story and the narrative of fake news entrenched the belief amongst a layer of politicians and pundits that what is needed is more oversight and control over content by Big Tech. After the 2016 election, Facebook increased the number of content reviewers to over 15,000, many of whom are employed for subcontractors. The company also introduced and expanded the use of new technology to moderate and flag content.
Then in 2018, after years of pressure, Facebook said it would create an independent board to look at content moderation. A year later Facebook announced it was implementing a 40-person Oversight Board that would hear appeals from users about Facebook and Instagram whose posts have been taken down. The board’s membership is a who’s who of establishment figures of lawyers, politicians, judges, media figures and academics. Crucially, the Oversight Board still ultimately leaves the company in control.
Over the last few years, there have been various efforts by governments to regulate Silicon Valley. In 2016 the EU pushed Facebook and Twitter to adopt a code of conduct regarding terrorism and hate speech, but the result was simply self-regulation by the companies. But by 2018, Facebook and other Big Tech companies began to shift their position and welcome increased regulation over content. As Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg noted: “Governments have to set standards, and companies have to work with them to make sure we can meet them.”
This past summer, some advertisers led a boycott of Facebook, calling for more regulation of conspiracies and hate speech by the company. The question facing companies like Facebook or Twitter when it comes to the regulation of speech has now become: are you a platform for content, or a publisher of content?
New rules in the EU and UK are being proposed to govern Big Tech. The Digital Services Act in the EU proposes large fines for internet platforms if they do not restrict and censor certain illegal content like hate speech. New oversight bodies are being proposed as well as other laws and regulations that may curb the monopolistic practices of the companies. Big Tech is clearly comfortable with some form of regulation, as it mitigates risk. But there are limits.
In Australia the government passed a draft law that proposed to make social media companies pay publishers if news content was posted on their sites. This was a way to break up the power of Big Tech and fund a struggling journalism industry. Facebook’s response was to ban Australian news sources from Facebook newsfeeds. This was an unprecedented move. While Facebook eventually restored the ability to post Australian newsfeeds on its platform, this was only after it had won concessions in the bill for greater flexibility. The drastic action by Facebook was a message not just to the Australian government, but to the EU (which is contemplating a similar piece of legislation), and every other government worldwide.
While there are some tensions between Big Tech and government over regulation, we should avoid seeing the interests of Silicon Valley and governments as diametrically opposed. Silicon Valley has long been integrated with governments from using public research and technology or being awarded profitable government contracts, to working with governments in writing regulation. And of course the ties between Silicon Valley and the U.S. government security service remains deep.
And Big Tech isn’t just comfortable cooperating with governments and security services in the U.S., Canada and Europe. This cozy relationship between government and Big Tech is occurring across the globe. Big Tech companies help enforce China’s censorship and happily supply the means for the Saudi government to spy on its citizens.
Policing political speech
Over the last 18 months, it has become increasingly apparent that social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have landed firmly on the side of expanding the scope and scale of their regulation of speech. Both companies have cracked down on extremism, conspiracy theories and fake news. While some have applauded this move as these companies taking “responsibility,” this move represents a frightening escalation of their power. Who gets to define what an “extreme” view is? Who gets to decide what constitutes a conspiracy theory?
The consequences of Big Tech’s growing power to police the limits of acceptable speech are already being felt. Last August, Facebook announced the expansion of the “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” policy which resulted in the banning of QAnon and far-right pages, as well as groups and individuals, from the platform. But it wasn’t just some far-right groups that were banned: hundreds of anti-fascist, anarchist, and anti-capitalist groups and pages were banned as well. As the journalist Natasha Lennard noted at the time, “Both rhetorically and through specific policies, the government has obfuscated and downplayed the threat of white supremacist extremism, while sensationalizing the risks posed by the far left. With its latest bans, Facebook is following this same playbook.”
Despite the vocal support by Silicon Valley of Black Lives Matter, the Big Tech companies have systematically marginalized Black voices. There have been numerous cases where Black users post criticisms of racist incidents and white supremacy only to be restricted or banned themselves from Facebook. The internal culture at Facebook has been described by former Black employees as racist. Black workers have had their voices marginalized and are subjected to daily routines of anti-Black racism. This past summer Mark Zuckerburg restricted the internal employee forum from posting content featuring Black Lives Matter as well as those supporting white supremacist views, engaging in a serious false equivalence.
The level of censorship in 2021 has only increased. As mentioned earlier, January’s Capitol Hill riots saw a new round of crackdown on the far-right and far-left. Akin Olla, the Nigerian-American activist, publicly wrote about how he and other left-wing activists were banned or restricted by Facebook in the lead-up to Biden’s inauguration.
In February, Facebook banned the page of the Socialist Workers Party in the UK along with a number of its activists. It has since reinstated the page and a number of individuals, though not all. That same month, content from protests in support of the hunger strike by left-wing Greek political prisoner Dimitris Koufodinas was banned. Video and pictures of the protests, where 3,000 people attended, were censored by Facebook. A number Greek journalists and lawyers were either banned or placed on restrictions for posting media of the protests or support for it.
Supporters of national liberation struggles the world over have seen their political speech curbed or attacked by social media platforms. Palestinians and those supporting Palestinian national liberation have long struggled with Facebook censoring their political opinions. Sada Social documents the vast number of incidents where Palestinains are banned on social media for criticizing the Israeli government, its policies and advocating for the basic tenets of national liberation. Most of the time there are no reasons given. Facebook has long worked with the Israeli government to deactivate Palestinian activists’ accounts, and has approved the Israeli government’s requests a staggering 95% of the time.
Now there are efforts to push Facebook into declaring “Zionism” as a protected category that would equate Zionism with Judaism. As a result, the legitimate criticism of the Israeli government would be removed from Facebook. This would radically limit free political expression and the ability of Palestinians to state the obvious, that Zionism is settler-colonialism and must be opposed. This would also legitimate the very flawed IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Other national liberation movements have also felt the squeeze of online political speech. Tamil activists, for instance, are routinely subjected to bans and restrictions for supporting the Tamil Tigers or legitimate resistance to the government.
Labour activists too have felt the sting of censorship. It is well known that Silicon Valley has a long history of opposing unions and workers’ rights. Last summer, Facebook unveiled “Facebook Workplace,” an internal chat app for workplaces (similar to Slack). Big workplaces like Walmart have already signed up. The catch is that the employers would have the ability to monitor and censor communication, especially words like “unionize.” Facebook is specifically designing tools of political repression for one of the most authoritarian institutions in our society: the workplace.
Twitter’s content filter, which flags offensive language, has also labeled “union buster” as offensive language. This is not simply an issue of artificial intelligence and content filters in need of refinement, but about the political values that shape the question of acceptable speech. The recent union vote by Amazon workers in Alabama also highlighted the danger of this censorship. Pro-union reports covering the union drive in Payday Report, franknews, The American Prospect, and More Perfect Union have all been either blocked or reported as suspicious. This is especially galling as Amazon’s Amazon Web Services power Twitter’s newsfeed. Perhaps the United States’ most well-known labour reporter, Steven Greenhouse, routinely had his reporting on the Amazon union drive marked as suspicious.
Likewise, the massive farmers’ protest movement in India that exploded at the end of last year and into 2021 has also bumped into social media censorship. At the request of the Modi government, Twitter permanently banned hundreds of accounts of activists and journalists. Facebook has also been accused of censoring content of Sikh and pro-farmer accounts and pages on both Facebook and Instagram. As the legal counsel of the World Sikh Organization Balpreet Singh noted, “We are seeing hashtags being frozen and we are seeing accounts that are posting about these issues, using those hashtags, either being locked or not having their content visible to other users.”
This isn’t just a question of Silicon Valley censorship via direct bans and restrictions. Perhaps the most insidious way in which political speech is being controlled is through the hidden hand of the algorithm. The shadow banning of political content is a very real phenomenon that greatly impacts social movements. Not having one’s speech directly banned is cold comfort if the speech is purposely manipulated so that it is unseen and unfound.
Over the last number of months, Facebook has explicitly been moving away from having “political” content appear in news feeds. Citing internal surveys of users, Facebook is going to deemphasize political content. As Zuckerburg recently noted, “a lot of things have become politicized and politics has kind of had a way of creeping into everything.” For Zuckerburg, this was a bad thing. In Canada and a select number of other countries, Facebook is already testing its changed algorithm that deemphasizes political content. Page views and clicks on news stories are way down.
If you are rich and powerful, content with society as it is, then deemphasizing politics doesn’t matter to you. In fact, the less avenues for political change, the better. But for those seeking to challenge white supremacy, sexism, inequality, and capitalism, this is a problem. It is an extremely ideological position to think that the status quo is apolitical and that challenges to that are what is political. The express limiting of political expression is about reinforcing the inequities and inequalities in our society.
The attack on political speech
For all of the hubbub about “cancel culture” over the last year, it should be remembered that the greatest threats to political expression are not users on social media, but the rich and powerful who control those platforms and governments who seek to limit the acceptable ideas espoused in our society.
The Liberal government is set to introduce a new bill this month that addresses online hate. There are rumblings that the bill might contain a redefinition of what constitutes hate. Independent Jewish Voices just released a statement urging the government not to include the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in the legislation, as some organizations have been urging. The legislation looks like it will create it will create a regulator to ensure compliance by social media companies of the new definition of illegal content, including hate speech and terrorism. The problem is defining hate speech is quite subjective and thus gives Big Tech expansive powers in regulating speech.
Big Tech cannot be a neutral arbiter of what political speech is acceptable or not acceptable. Its quest for profits, ties to governments, and class position inevitably shape what they see as political, what is deemed as acceptable. And for those of us on the left, this is often in stark opposition to our worldview and values.
This is why we should resist the urge to empower Big Tech to play a more active role in policing speech online. We should have no sympathy with fascists who are banned by Big Tech, but we should be wary of expanding the powers of Big Tech, as the records show that left-wing movements will suffer disproportionately.
What is the left to do?
The left has a long history of fighting for free speech rights, from opposing wars to advocating for workers’ rights. Meanwhile, governments, employers and media companies have long been ardent opponents— not advocates or protectors— of free speech. As Judy Cox notes, “There is no free market for ideas. The rich own the media and those in power have repeatedly repressed the free speech of the majority.”
When workers are punished for expressing political opinions in the workplace, when Palestinian activists are targeted for opposing Zionism and when social media companies ban what they deem as unacceptable speech, can we really say we have a robust right of free speech?
Socialists must push back against racism and hate speech without further empowering the ruling class and corporations which ultimately benefit from structural racism. This year, when the rightwing and racist newspaper the Epoch Times was being mailed out en masse to households across Canada, some workers engaged in a refusal to deliver the paper. These actions pointed the way to how workers in action can exert democratic control over the distribution of ideas. Empowering workers and giving them democratic control in the workplace can be the perfect antidote to the spread of hate and racism.
Social media is a privatized part of the public sphere that should be socialized and democratized. This is obviously a huge political task. In the meantime, we should aim in every instance to curb the power of Big Tech. We should demand more accountability, transparency and oversight. And we should fight to place higher taxes on these companies to help fund public media.
As an ever-larger share of people turn to social media for news and information, the battle for control over social media grows increasingly important. On the granular level, left-wing activists need to approach their use of social media with a strategic lens, finding ways to beat the algorithm, build audiences, and organize their networks into action. On the macro level, this means finding ways to fight the right without empowering Big Tech or the government to curb political expression. It means building the economic and political power to see that Big Tech should be socialized. Otherwise, if we allow Big Tech to assert its class interests by increasingly controlling political speech, the entire left will be in trouble.
Our right to political expression is nothing without our right to collectively exercise it.