By José Niño
Say the wrong things and you might get kicked off of your favorite social media platform.
Tech titans Apple, Facebook, and YouTube have wiped out talk-show host Alex Jones’s social media presence on the Internet. But the social media crusades weren’t over.
Facebook recently took down popular pages like Liberty Memes and hundreds of other prominent libertarian-leaning pages. In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, social media network Gab was on the receiving end of suspensions from payment processors like PayPal and Stripe and cloud hosting company Joyent. Although these companies did not provide clear explanations for their dissociation with Gab, the media had a field day when they learned that the synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers, had an account with the social media network.
Should libertarians fear social media de-platforming? Or is this a case of private actors exercising their legitimate property rights by excluding those they wish to no longer do business with?
The Blurring Lines of the Public & Private Sector
Since the question of de-platforming has popped up, some conservatives have proposed state-based solutions to solve this problem. In a role reversal, conservative commentator Ann Coulter suggested that the government pass anti-discrimination laws to prevent social media platforms from de-platforming conservatives. Ideological consistency is a lot to ask for from seasoned veterans of Conservative Inc these days.
Nevertheless, Coulter expanded on why the 1st Amendment protections must be extended to social media:
We need to apply the First Amendment to social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google, because it is a public square, and there is precedent for that and it’s gotta be done, because this is really terrifying, and talk about chilling speech when they’re just throwing people off right and left.
Although private entities are within their rights to decide with whom they do business, libertarians should not completely dismiss concerns about social media censorship. The first question we must ask: How separate from the State are these social media giants in the first place?
This is the 21st century after all; a point where the United States has embraced over a century’s worth of government encroachments. Every nook and cranny of society—from the food we eat to the sporting events we watch,—has seen State interference.
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When we look closely, Americans nominally own their private property, but this comes with a gigantic asterisk. Governments at all levels can regulate, micro-manage, and in extreme cases, expropriate property if the right political winds are blowing.
In an article from a few months ago, Justin Raimondo added some nuance to the de-platforming discussion. Even with the purge of Alex Jones, control freak politicians were still not satisfied. Raimondo explains the deeper implications of social media purges:
All this wasn’t good enough for Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), who demanded to know if the plan was to only take down “one web site.” No doubt he has a whole list of sites he’d like to take down. Even more ominously, it was revealed that a direct threat had been made to these companies by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia), who sent out a memo listing all the ways the government could crack down on Big Data if they refuse to go along with cleansing the internet of “divisive” material.
Raimondo also points out how the knee-jerk response to label all company actions as “private” overlooks some damning details:
So much for the “ libertarian ” argument that these companies and the platforms they run are “private,” and not connected in any way to the governmental Leviathan. This is the kneejerk response of outlets like Reason magazine, but it’s simply not a valid position to take. The Communications Decency Act immunizes these companies against any torts that may arise from activities conducted on their platforms: they can’t be sued or prosecuted for defamation, libel, or indeed for any criminal activity that is generated by these Internet domains.
Although no laws emerged from Senator Chris Murphy’s threats, the very act of social media giants kowtowing to political demands, tell us one thing: We’re living in an extortion-based political economy. You can keep your property, provided that you cave in to our political demands. If you fail to comply, hate speech laws will be shoved down your throat.
The rabbit hole of government-private sector collusion goes even deeper. Facebook has been working with the Atlantic Council, a think tank funded by the U.S. government and other foreign governments, to fight “foreign interference” during the 2018 election season. Despite Silicon Valley’s libertarian leanings during its rise to prominence, it has frequently partnered with government institutions like the military-industrial complex.
In sum, Silicon Valley is allured by the prospect of state privilege and has worked to cultivate it like every other crony entity in the U.S.
Bad Culture Precedes Bad Politics
Unfortunately, Silicon Valley’s obsession of PC thought policing is a symptom of our present-day culture. Once a country that championed free expression at all levels of society, the U.S. is seeing its culture of free expression slowly wither away. Author Nassim Taleb explains in his book Skin in the Game how free speech threats need not always originate from the State:
Effectively, there is no democracy without such an unconditional symmetry in the rights to express yourself and the gravest threat is the slippery slope in the attempts to limit speech on grounds that some of it may hurt some people’s feelings. Such restrictions do not necessarily come from the state itself, rather from the forceful establishment of an intellectual monoculture by an overactive thought police in the media and cultural life.