Hugo Rifkind, a columnist for peak-establishment publication the Times of London, has a novel solution to allegations of bias and censorship on the part of Facebook and other tech giants: they should just admit it.
Writing about the appointment of former British Deputy Prime Minister and anti-Brexit hardliner Sir Nick Clegg as Facebook’s VP for global affairs and communications, Rifkind argues that Facebook should give up trying to deny its biases, and embrace them instead.
If he has any integrity then Clegg must do the job properly. When people accuse him of being biased against populist politics, he should laugh at them, and say, “so?” He must tell them it’s the lazy, pious neutrality of these companies that has turned politics into a shrieking noise of who can shout the loudest. Yes, that includes the White House.
He should tell them that tech companies are responsible for everything they publish, because they are publishers, and if they are ashamed of it they shouldn’t be publishing it at all.
Clegg knows that companies such as Facebook benefit from divisive politics at the expense of social cohesion. He must tell his new bosses that they need to do something about that, while also telling them it’s a problem they are so powerful that they can.
A similar argument was recently made by Harvard’s Nieman Lab, which argued that there was nothing shocking about Google’s researchers admitting (behind closed doors) that it and other tech platforms have undergone a “shift towards censorship.” On the contrary, writes the author, Google should have simply made its researchers’ views on the matter public.
Rifkind goes much further though, arguing that tech companies should throw away the pretense of being neutral platforms and embrace their new, role as editors-in-chief of all our posts. Facebook should, in Rifkind’s view, humbly lament its power but at the same time never refrain from exercising it. After all, “social cohesion” is at stake!
He also suggests that Facebook should embrace its role as a publisher rather than a platform, an argument that has important legal ramifications (Facebook can’t shun legal responsibility for content on its platform if it’s a publisher — it can only do so if it’s a neutral platform).
He should tell them that tech companies are responsible for everything they publish, because they are publishers, and if they are ashamed of it they shouldn’t be publishing it at all
Rifkind’s argument is important because it’s a different approach to the one taken by Congressional Democrats, who have thus far maintained that bias and censorship against conservatives and populists on the part of social media companies is simply a “conspiracy theory.” Rifkind, by way of contrast, accepts that the bias exists — he just thinks it’s good, and should go further.
In the coming battle over the digital public square, I predict the “conspiracy theory” argument will fall out of favor. Here’s why.
1. Grassroots Democrats don’t buy it
Earlier this year, Pew ran an opinion poll on voters’ attitudes towards social media platforms. Among other questions, participants were asked if they believed social media companies censor political viewpoints. Unsurprisingly, 86 percent of Republicans said it was either “very” or “somewhat” likely that this occurred (the split was 54 percent “very” and 32 percent “somewhat”).
However, 62 percent of Democrats also said it was either “very” or “somewhat” likely that social media platforms censor political viewpoints (20 percent “very” and 42 percent “somewhat”). Even if Democrat politicians insist social media bias is just a right-wing conspiracy theory, the message is not being adopted by their supporters. And as evidence of political censorship mounts, the numbers will only get worse for Democrats who want to ignore the problem.
2. Establishment and left-wing media are divided
There are still plenty of establishment media stooges ready to walk the Democrat line on social media censorship. But for the few honest members of the press who remain, the reports of censorship have become impossible to ignore.
“Must admit that when some R sources have complained about this to me I mocked them to their face as conspiracy theorists” wrote Axios journalist Jonathan Swan, in the aftermath of a Vice report on Twitter’s covert downranking of content from top Republican politicians. “This Vice article makes me rethink that, and response from Twitter is inadequate.”
3. Google’s internal researchers no longer deny it
Nieman Lab may say it’s not a problem, but the fact remains that in “The Good Censor,” an internal presentation leaked to Breitbart News, Google admitted in plain terms that the tech platforms that “dominate the majority of online conversations” have “shifted towards censorship.” There will surely be a few Democrats shameless enough to insist that internet censorship is still just a conspiracy theory, but when the world’s most powerful tech company contradicts them, it’s hard to imagine who’ll be gullible enough to buy it.
4. Google’s executives contradict it
Google executives have made it clear: they want the populist movement to be snuffed out. In leaked footage obtained by Breitbart News, Google VP Kent Walker said “history teaches us that there are periods of populism, of nationalism… That’s why we have to work so hard to ensure that it doesn’t turn into a World War or something catastrophic, but instead is a blip, is a hiccup.” The video also showed top Google executives, including co-founder Sergey Brin and CEO Sundar Pichai, addressing questions about what to do following the 2016 election. Their answers included a promise to look into combating “fake news,” and a brief discussion of Google’s anti-extremist “Jigsaw” project in relation to allegedly “extremist” Trump supporters.
5. Google, Facebook, and Twitter’s actions contradict it
Many would like both the leaked presentation and the leaked video to be dismissed as mere words. Actions, as always, speak louder. In the past month alone:
- Facebook banned over 800 alternative news pages and accounts, just a few weeks before the midterm elections – including pages belonging to a disabled veteran who had invested $300,000 in ads to promote his pages at Facebook’s suggestion.
- Google blocked a campaign from Toronto mayoral candidate Faith Goldy, just a few days before election day.
- Facebook and WhatsApp cracked down on supporters of populist Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro ahead of upcoming runoff elections
- Twitter blacklisted a popular conservative activist with over 70,000 followers and an alternative news source with over a million followers while refusing to take action against anti-semitic tweets from the far-left black identitarian Louis Farrakhan.
Thanks to this, and to Breitbart News’ successful investigations of big tech bias, the denial of social media censorship can only be maintained by the willfully blind, or by pedants who insist that censorship by a private company is impossible (Google disagrees, and so does the supreme court). For those who want to snuff out the ability of populists to spread their message online, Rifkind’s approach seems more feasible — admit that big tech is biased, embrace it, and defend it.