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The Rise Of Censor-Washing
In an unholy alliance with Big Tech, American civil society is giving cover to a new regime of censorship in America.
Late last month, it was announced that online financial behemoth PayPal had formed a partnership with the Anti-Defamation League to “fight extremism and protect marginalized communities” on PayPal’s platform. The announcement described it as “the latest effort by PayPal in combating racism, hate and extremism across its platforms and the industry.” The initiative, which will be run through the ADL’s Center on Extremism, will “focus on actors and networks spreading and profiting from all forms of hate and bigotry against any community.”
The news was predictably met with a firestorm of controversy. In America’s post-Trump environment, vague and ill-defined references to “extremism” and “hate” have become all too common tools for stigmatizing vast swaths of the political spectrum and stifling what many consider to be legitimate forms of political speech and activity. And for many, the initiative sounded too much like a decisive step toward the dystopic, authoritarian idea of a “social credit score” in which citizens’ access to basic consumer and financial services would be based on evaluations of their private behavior or beliefs. And it was also just another example in what has now become a familiar and chilling series of censorious actions taken by America’s largest and most powerful tech platforms toward individuals and groups found to be expressing ideas that sit outside of the mainstream consensus, whether it’s YouTube’s routine removal of videos found to be deviating from whatever happens to be the current (and always shifting) scientific consensus or Amazon’s newly-adopted policy of banning of books that deviate from progressive beliefs about transgenderism or anything found to be promoting “hate speech.”
But this latest PayPal initiative is also part of a broader and unmistakeable pattern that’s been developing over the past few years. It’s one where Big Tech companies have sought to deal with the public’s concern over their massive, unprecedented, and unaccountable power over Americans’ speech and the country’s flow of news and information by entering into partnerships with America’s elite, highly influential civil society sector of media, academic, non-profit, policy, and advocacy organizations.
Meet the Collaborators
One group, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), has become somewhat of a nexus for Big Tech’s strategy in this regard. The decades-old civil rights organization was revealed in 2018 to be working with nearly the entire cast of Big Tech, including Facebook, Amazon, Google, YouTube, and Twitter, to police and moderate content on those platforms. In 2019, PayPal’s CEO revealed that SPLC helps the company to identify and ban users from its service.
In 2016 Twitter announced its “Trust and Safety Council,” which it describes as a “group of independent expert organizations” that advises it on content moderation and product decisions. The group counts the ADL as a member, as well as LGBTQ rights organization GLAAD.
In 2018, Facebook announced an election partnership with the Atlantic Council, a private think tank closely aligned with the U.S. foreign policy establishment, to help monitor election-related abuse and “disinformation” campaigns on the social network.
This year, Google and (once again) the ADL partnered with a British firm called Moonshot CVE to redirect Google users searching for what they consider “extreme” or “hate-filled” material to alternative “de-radicalizing” sites.
And all of this is in addition to the multitude of partnerships and programmatic entanglements these platforms have with the purportedly neutral “fact checking” operations at news organizations, such as Facebook’s “Third-Party Fact-Checking” program that’s been in place since 2016 and which aims to “reduce problematic content” across its network with the help of mainstream news organizations like the Associated Press, Reuters, USA Today, and FactCheck.org. And that’s nothing to say of the tremendous informal pressure exerted on social networks by the “online disinformation” units that have cropped up in recent years at news outlets like NBC News and the New York Times, where journalists actively lobby and pressure tech platforms to remove and censor content or individuals they have deemed to be spreading factually wrong or “harmful” information.
What exactly explains Big Tech’s newfound impulse for collaboration, partnership, and openness to such constructive criticism? From an objective standpoint, Big Tech certainly has had a growing public relations problem on its hands, having steadily amassed a historically unprecedented, and perhaps untenable, level of power over the flow of news, ideas, and information, and with almost zero accountability or transparency to the public. But until 2016, a largely agnostic and hands-off approach reigned dominant within tech, and for obvious reasons: Besides aligning generally with Silicon Valley’s libertarian ethos, it was also clearly good for business to allow as much free expression and content production as possible while minimizing the sense that users of these platforms were being restricted, filtered, or obstructed in any way. Their value was in being the world’s platforms — the enabling infrastructure — for the exchange of information, not in being producers or curators of content like the dying media industry model it was replacing. Censorship was both antithetical to their business model and, more broadly, a distraction from its disruptive historical march.
But that changed after 2016, when the widespread notion took hold that Trump’s election could be traced to the spread of misinformation and “fake news” on social networks. In the ensuing years, tech companies became a major target of fierce criticism and immense pressure among elite media and cultural sectors of American society who saw in Big Tech a failure to adequately police and quell the manipulative, reactionary, and even foreign elements responsible for subverting American democracy. That push from one half of the country resulted in a predictable pull from the other, with conservatives bristling at tech companies’ increasing scrutiny and censorship of right-leaning media platforms and figures and accusing Big Tech of having an anti-conservative bias. That dynamic reaching a crescendo in late 2020 and early 2021 with Big Tech’s unanimous blackout of the Hunter Biden laptop story, the banning of Trump’s Twitter account, and the removal of conservative social app Parler from Apple’s and Google’s app stores and Amazon’s servers following the January 6th Capitol riot.
As a result of this political pressure cooker, Big Tech has been in the position of having to solve the inherent problem of the immense, unaccountable, democracy-threatening power concentration that comes with being America’s nascent censorship regime while at the same time trying not to give up much, if any, of its actual autonomy and independence.
Enter your friendly neighborhood NGO.
In its partnerships with America’s elite institutions of civil society — advocacy groups, media organizations, academic institutes — Big Tech seems to believe it can walk that tightrope. By outsourcing the moral, ethical, and administrative burden of a censorship bureaucracy to a sector of society that is strongly associated with a reputation for issue area expertise and working in the public interest, they are attempting to apply a veneer of neutrality, judiciousness, authoritativeness, and public accountability to what might otherwise be described as run-of-the-mill tyranny. You might not trust a distant, faceless, profit-seeking Silicon Valley corporation, but what about an official news “fact checker,” a gay rights organization, or an advocacy group that protects “marginalized communities” and combats hate and extremism?
Whether or not Big Tech can really make the sale on the legitimacy of this arrangement to a skeptical public is an open question. But one thing that might stand in the way of closing that deal is that it’s an unambiguous farce.
For starters, the elite institutions of American civil society — from the news media to academia to non-profits and advocacy groups — aren’t exactly culture-war-agnostic. In fact, many if not most of them have become tip-of-the-spear culture war factories, having undergone dramatic ideological transformations during the last decade’s “Great Awokening,” a process which accelerated during Trump’s presidency and converted much of American civil society into openly ideological and partisan institutions.
Whether it’s NPR’s wall-to-wall coverage of the trans BIPOC news beat or the ACLU’s tragic evolution from civil liberties defender to book banning advocate, the sector that Big Tech believes will add legitimacy to its department of wrong-think is actually ground zero for the very culture war it’s been asked to referee. That’s certainly true of organizations like the SPLC and ADL, both of whom have come under criticism and scrutiny for their overly broad, partisan, and politically weaponized use of the “extremist”and “hate group” labels. The ADL even currently hosts an entire page on its website dedicated to defending and extolling the virtues of antifa. And what’s more, many of these organizations — as well as the extremely progressive class of professionals and activists they are almost exclusively staffed by — are the very ones who regularly file the politically motivated complaints and petitions against technology companies demanding more content moderation and censorship. Perhaps no group has led that charge more enthusiastically than the ADL, whose high profile “Stop Hate For Profit” campaign explicitly called on all of the major tech companies to ban Trump and to take a more active role in censoring content it deemed to be “disinformation.”
Far from representing some sort of democratic counter-balance to Big Tech tyranny, the cultural institutions of civil society constitute their own highly elite, technocratic, and insulated power center of American society, whose leadership likely shares far more cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic affinities with the CEOs of tech companies than they do with the vast majority of working or middle class Americans. And that’s to say nothing of the overtly partisan political synergy in this relationship, given the overwhelmingly Democratic tilt of the tech sector where 98 percent of political donations go to Democrats. If that isn’t enough, it’s also worth mentioning that much of the civil society sector’s advocacy, academic, and policy apparatus is quite literally funded by the fortunes of Silicon Valley billionaires.
At best, then, we can characterize the deal struck between Big Tech and civil society as a sort of power-sharing agreement between two elite power centers of American life — an unholy merging of one highly influential sector with another to form a more complete and unified administrative state to execute the new censorship regime. For Big Tech, a benevolent expert class lends its credentials and moral authority to “censor-wash” what might otherwise be seen as a repressive and illegitimate regime of speech policing and suppression, defusing the threat of more democratic, regulatory, government-based remedies that would much more potently threaten the power and autonomy of tech companies. And in return, a highly ideological and partisan civil society class is allowed to wage its politics unbound by the cumbersome and messy process of electoral politics and democracy, thereby realizing its dream of a progressive, top-down, technocratic utopia administered through the immense power handed to them in the form of content and access moderation over the world’s communication platforms. Far from being a check to the unprecedented power that has concentrated in Big Tech, this collaboration heavily invests America’s elites in preserving that very concentration — as long as they have access to it themselves. Every regime, it seems, needs its collaborators.