* A handful of corporations now command the strategic heights over the economy and the information landscape, a concentration of power that is probably unprecedented in our history. Their natural impulse will be to consolidate and expand that power, if only to keep out the competition. If a bargain can be struck with the political class on a new, post-pandemic information order, these companies may well get their wish.
* Since the rise of Donald Trump in 2016, the elites have perceived the digital realm, correctly enough, as a vector of subversion. The web, it was asserted, delivered lies at scale—only such industrial quantities of deceit could account for the disaster of Trump’s election. In a four-year frenzy of righteousness, politicians like Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren, intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama, and a vast chorus of academics and journalists have called for the regulation of content on behalf of truth and for the “breakup” of the companies that commodify falsehood. The lords of Silicon Valley have been repeatedly summoned to Washington, there to be chastised by their betters. But nothing changed until the pandemic changed everything.
Governments everywhere treated the appearance of COVID-19 as the equivalent of a state of war. With science as holy writ, an ad hoc system of control that contradicted basic individual rights but seemed necessary to survive the crisis was imposed from above on an anxious public. In essence, we were told to stay home and wash our hands like good children. The freedom to gather in places of worship and public parks became a crime against science and was revoked for the duration. And if the authorities often sounded clueless, the public felt even more frightened and confused. Not surprisingly, most of us went along with the restrictions.
No system of social control could function without the cooperation of the giant digital companies. They, too, were happy to go along. In what may have been the most consequential impact of the pandemic on American politics, Facebook, Google, Twitter and other platforms agreed to manipulate information searches so that only content approved by established health organizations would appear. Heretical opinions were blocked or removed. For Facebook that included “content coordinating in-person events or gatherings” as well as anti-vaccine arguments of any sort. By January 2021, YouTube had taken down 500,000 videos that strayed from the “expert consensus” on COVID-19.
The intent was to stop the diffusion of unscientific “misinformation” on the web and thus prevent harm. The practical effect, however, was to outsource editorial policy on billions of searches and reports to government officials and bureaucrats. The political elites now decided which “in-person events or gatherings” could be talked about on social media and which were to be met with silence. The temptation to push the mandate was obvious and irresistible. We should not be surprised that the system of control soon intruded into politics—or that its first target was that object of elite loathing, Donald Trump.
The digital silencing of Trump after the events of Jan. 6 could be justified in many ways. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, believed the president would “incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government” if allowed to post on Facebook. Twitter also cited “the risk of further incitement of violence” as the reason for its ban. While these were debatable judgments, there could be little doubt that Trump had behaved with nihilistic abandon in his last weeks in office.
The difficulty came in discerning where to draw the line. More than 74 million Americans voted for Trump. As we have seen, a considerable portion agreed with the former president on the question of election fraud. Should they all be voted off the island?
The answer was an unhelpful “Maybe yes, but mostly no.” Twitter purged 70,000 Trump supporters on the grounds that they were associated with QAnon, the conspiracy theorists who purportedly spearheaded the attack on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. YouTube terminated 8,000 channels guilty of “alleging that widespread fraud or errors changed the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.” Facebook banned ads that made the same claim, then extended the prohibition to all political ads—including ads for magazines of political commentary, like this one. Amazon, Google and Apple booted out Parler, a pro-Trump microblogging site, from their app stores and servers.
The motive had little to do with science or truth. The tech companies had been persuaded to yield control of content to the health bureaucracy. On politics, reflexively, they were now genuflecting before conventional elite opinion, as embodied in the grayheads of the Biden administration.
The lack of clarity surrounding the bans meant that the line could move again. Control of so much digital space by such few companies meant that, to a significant extent, our political disputes will be conducted under their purview. For those who have sought to tame the web, these two propositions added up to a golden opportunity.