While it’s being framed as a crusade against disinformation and preventing violence, what we seem to be witnessing is a reactionary push for censorship from multiple angles. Some may be well-meaning, but some seem to be motivated by self-interest. The reasoning behind it is not the issue though, the issue is censorship itself. Especially concerning is that now even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, supposedly one of the most progressive members of Congress, seems to essentially be calling for the creation of an actual “Ministry of Truth.”
One element of this issue is the question of who, if anyone, should get to determine whether something is true. This brings us to the age-old question, “who will watch the watchmen?” Even assuming good intentions on the part of AOC here, it shouldn’t take too much imagination to see how such a thing could go wrong. It seems as though making sure the government didn’t have any hand in what can or can’t be said, and by whom, is one of the key principles behind the First Amendment.
As for the media, apparently the legacy corporate suits seem to think they should be the arbiters of truth. Journalist Glenn Greenwald recently posted examples from two of the largest cable news networks, CNN and MSNBC, calling for censorship of social media platforms, in one example even calling for Facebook to “be shutdown.” Mind you, these are the same outlets who spread falsehoods to help raise public support for the war in Iraq and unjustified attacks on Syria, and that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. The recent uproar over the GameStop stock situation also had news anchors and corporate executives alike calling for censorship on behalf of Wall Street, though I don’t seem to recall them ever getting quite so upset when billionaire bankers have been caught engaging in more destructive kinds of manipulation behind closed doors.
For their part, the social media companies seem content to bolster the position of legacy media, to the point of suppressing independent voices. While some would like you to believe that it’s only conservatives being tuned out, that isn’t actually the case at all. For example, Facebook recently took down the page of the British Socialist Workers Party. As Jeet Heer writes in The Nation, at least some of this seems to be “a misguided effort to create the illusion of balance.”
On a related side note, since the GameStop situation was mentioned, it is also interesting to note that Google deleted “at least 100,000 negative reviews” of the Robinhood app after they halted sales of certain stocks on their platform.
In another recent example, while broadcasting a report on a gun rights rally taking place in Virginia, independent media outlet Status Coup had their stream pulled from YouTube. A Twitter post from Status Coup’s founder Jordan Chariton showed a screenshot of a communication from YouTube claiming that the live feed was removed because they thought it violated their firearms policy. The policy apparently “does not allow live streams showing someone holding, handling, or transporting a firearm.” Say what you will about that policy, but while I was first researching this article, I went to YouTube and looked at some live feeds from a few of the national outlets such as NBC and ABC. Two out of the three channels I checked on my quick, informal survey included video of people handling and/or transporting firearms, mostly from recent demonstrations. Should only the legacy media be allowed to cover live events?
I mention Status Coup here in particular partly because they have also done an excellent job of covering the Flint water crisis, a story which legacy media refuses to cover to this day. Even the local Detroit Free Press directly turned down a chance to run a story offered by Chariton with no strings attached. They are also currently covering the story of an Amazon worker, Poushawn Brown, who recently died after working in one of the company’s COVID testing areas. These are important stories which aren’t getting covered by corporate media, but sources like Status Coup get shut down and de-ranked, while the ones who pushed the debunked “Russian bounties” story get amplified.
The way to fight disinformation is with education and encouraging critical thinking, not with censorship. Similarly, the way to fight violence is to improve material conditions, not with authoritarian crackdowns.