By Pete North
I wasn’t particularly bothered about Twitter dumping Trump. In campaign mode he speaks figuratively and his moronic supporters take him literally. Nor, particularly I’m I bothered that Twitter has done a clean sweep of unverified accounts. It should have done this a long time ago. That it hasn’t until now is somewhat hypocritical. They were perfectly happy to use the numbers to report growth to their shareholders. For them to suddenly develop a social conscience is a little bit rich.
Ultimately if Twitter wants to be a curated sphere focussing its efforts, as it does, on improving he quality of public debate, as opposed to being a free-for-all, then it’s their prerogative. They get rid of the grunters from their platform the same way I do mine. I know what their opinions are, I don’t respect them and I don’t need to hear them.
And though Twitter is all but a monopoly power, the internet is still an open market for competitors with a different ethos. Or at least it was until last night when Apple, Google and Amazon decided to close ranks and remove a competitor.
As it happens, I’m not a fan of Parler. It’s basically a weaponised version of the Breitbart comments section where users are entirely free to proliferate anti-vax conspiracy theories and coordinate related political action, arguably outside of the law. If there is proof of the latter then it is for lawful authorities to pull the plug. I do not believe a tech cartel should have the power to suppress public debate.
On this matter I’m not a free speech absolutist. Unfettered and deliberate disinformation is harmful. Cynical actors can easily misdirect public debate to cynical ends. Public ignorance can be nurtured and leveraged. I’ve seen this during the Brexit debate. There is a particular canon of Brexit disinformation and its progenitors were by and large successful in proliferating it. For this there are real world consequences, none of them good and for motives which are still unclear. Businesses will now go under, jobs will be lost, families will be broken. One wonders if it could be avoided had Twitter culled the unverified accounts three four years ago.
This puts us in the position of having to choose the lesser of two demonstrably evil propositions. It’s either a degree of censorship or allow bad faith actors to play the system, vulnerable as it is to such influences, where the outcome could lead to rioting, revolution, mass infection or serious economic disruption leading to starvation and extreme poverty.
One could argue we are heading in that direction anyway so it’s a choice of whether to walk or cycle to our destruction. A government insulated from criticism and accountability is sure to deliver the worst of all worlds. But then the old dynamic no longer holds being that governments are perfectly capable of insulating themselves without censorship where even the most free media has very little impact on their performance.
In this, the ones I trust the least are those who claim there is no dilemma. More often than not the free speech absolutists are the bad actors themselves. The most vocal proponents of free speech right now appear to be those with an axe to grind, which amounts to little more than petulant bellyaching.
I don’t know what the answer is. Certainly a more inclusive and responsive democracy would help matters, and with more restraints on executive powers, but in this instance, the power is wielded by corporates- global businesses accountable to nobody. The power of big tech over public discourse is just the latest, most visible manifestation of a thirty year global drift toward the privatisation of regulation and rule setting. And it doesn’t end here. It has long been slipping out of the governmental domain, beyond our control.
This is partly what makes the leave/remain debate redundant. The dynamic is increasingly between the consumer and corporate, where the latter sets the rules and our only tool of influence is the way we spend our money. Global oligarchy is here and now. The paradigm shift was globalisation and freeing capital markets. Big tech’s power is a symptom of what was unleashed with this change – the self-neutering of government.
This is where the classic philosophical divisions in our politics no longer serve is. Dinosauric notions of nation-state socialism are ill-equipped to grapple with these such questions, as are typically conservative ideas of free trade and free markets. Ove the last three decades we have handed a handful of mega-corporations a great deal of power. They have us by the balls. They have our data, they control our supply chains, and our means of communication. Even EU-sized blocs fail to hold them to account.
This is where normal rules of capitalism no longer apply. Rather than businesses following public demand, corporates can simply use their influence to dictate to us. Now they think they can control the flow of information and determine who may speak. Worse than the outright banning of individuals is the slow stifling of competing businesses and ideas. We can choose only between the relative safety of corporate servitude or the tyranny of anarchy. Hard to say which is worse.
Regardless, I’m now done with Amazon goods and services and Netflix/Youtube can go in the bin too. I’ll be downgrading my mobile service contract to the bare minimum and doing what little I can to restrict the flow of my money to them. It’s only a token gesture but you have to start somewhere.
What is perhaps of even greater concern is the way in which the Democrat controlled White House will work in collusion with Big Tech. Widespread corporate censorship is in the pipeline and the definition of disinformation and hatespeech will be widened to include anyone who disagrees with the orthodoxy. Being that they have the young brainwashed, it won’t be difficult to enforce. Children will denounce their families publicly.
This is the fundamental problem. In granting anyone the power to sanitise the public sphere, we have to be sure about who we’re handing a loaded weapon to. For sure the grunter right is drifting further toward the far right, and the Trumpists enable actual nazis in their own ranks, but then if the public sphere is dominated by the “woke” left, pushing their social revolution through corporate channels, then it’s more than likely going to exacerbate the rise of the extreme right. Woke ideology is predatory, exploiting he vulnerabilities and insecurities of the young, with pretty much the same tactics as the far right or radical islam. If you can get people to believe absurdities you can get them to commit atrocities.
I get a sense that we’re on a highway to hell with no off ramps. As a matter of urgency the UK needs to uncouple itself from the hyper-partisan derangement sweeping America which is only going to get worse in the years to come. We need real and practical measures to make this happen. American politics has a deadly virus and we cannot afford to catch it.
I could be wrong and things might settle down in the fullness of time after Trump’s departure, but with this extraordinary interventions by Amazon, Apple and Google, it goes some way to validating the conspiracy theories and though the right can be driven from the public sphere, there are always alternate channels available, where these ideas will fester. Users of mainstream social channels have little awareness of the alternative sphere and we can expect to see gaming platforms used as forums for the coordination of political activity – unmonitored and unchallenged. The longer Covid drags on, and the worse the economic conditions become, the more unstable politics is likely to become. Unless we see the emergence of genuine leadership the west may be writing its final chapter of liberal democracy.