By Phil Lawler ( bio – articles – email ) | Feb 24, 2021
The ominous trend toward censorship, in the news and especially in the social media, is now unmistakably clear. At this point the question is when—not whether—Christian voices will be silenced.
Unless, of course, we can do something to reverse the trend.
In the digital era, information is king. If you control access to information—and can choke off access to information that you dislike—you can consolidate rule of the world. How can skeptics challenge you, if they never receive accurate information about what you are doing? How can your opponents organize, if they lack any way to contact like-minded people?
By now you have heard the ominous stories. To cite just a couple of egregious cases:
- A respected social scientist, the president of a Washington think-tank, learns that his book on the “transgender” movement has been banned by Amazon. The author, Ryan Anderson, has received no explanation for the move; presumably some Amazon employee, acting behind a veil of anonymity, was offended by his views. (BTW Amazon continues to sell Mein Kampf.) Anderson remarks:
If you fear what Big Tech can do if you dissent from gender ideology, just wait to see what Big Government will do if the so-called Equality Act becomes law. Second, a lesson: If you fear Big Government, don’t turn a blind eye to Big Tech.
- An An Irish Catholic bishop is blocked by Twitter because of a comment opposing assisted suicide. Twitter offered the ridiculous explanation that Bishop Kevin Doran had violated its policy against promoting suicide. Eventually Twitter recognized the blunder and restored the bishop’s account. But again a faceless employee had censored an important voice.
Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, and Google form the unassailable elite of the internet, and all four of those powerful corporations are increasingly prone to censorship of opinions their leaders consider misguided. But who guides the censors?
The Italian sociologist Gaetano Mosca, writing early in the 20th century, argued that all societies are dominated by elites, in one way or another. The test of a society’s justice, Mosca said, is what he called “juridical defense”—does the system provide a way for ordinary people to defend themselves against damaging decisions by the elites that rule them? In the cases mentioned above—and the reader could probably mention many other cases—the answer is a resounding No.
So by Mosca’s standards our system is unjust. Perhaps even worse than that, because in addition to stifling dissent, the internet giants are feeding a sort of addiction that saps the strength of the public. The mighty algorithms learn your habits, your likes and dislikes, the things that will grab your attention; then they put more and more of those things in front or your captive eyes, soaking up your time.
How do Facebook and Twitter and Google thrive? How do they generate revenues? The superficial answer is that they sell advertising space. The more accurate answer is that they are selling you, the user—selling you to those advertisers.
So if you object to the policies of the internet giants, but continue to use their services, you are working for your enemies. We are acting out a curious variation on Lenin’s prediction: “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”
All of us, insofar as we spend time online, are working for the internet giants, and being paid nothing for our time. What is it called when someone works without pay? It is not slavery, because it is voluntary. Yet it is not volunteer work, if you do not support the cause. Is it not, simply, stupidity?
Or is it, rather, a lack of alternatives. We need information; we need to discuss ideas; we need an open exchange. If we withdraw from the internet forum, we lose any realistic opportunity to challenge a dominant ideology that has grown steadily more hostile to us—and will become even more hostile if we are seen as the “outsiders,” the “deplorables.”
What are our alternatives, then? Let me suggest a few—and ask readers to make their own suggestions.
- Protest the “cancel culture.” Make it difficult for would-be censors to shut down respectable voices. Expose them. Ridicule them.
- Press for government action to protect free speech on the internet. Since liberal politicians have generally made common cause with the tech giants, their opponents should make censorship a prominent campaign issue.
- Create alternative services. I know that there are already several alternatives to Facebook and Twitter, and I wish them well. But realistically, they are not likely to rival the power of the giants in the near future. And do we have any guarantee that the upstart services, if they attained a large following, would not be tempted by the same arrogance of power?
- Control our own sites. Facebook censors can block posts on Facebook, but they cannot edit posts on independent sites (such as CatholicCulture.org). Individual blogs are beyond their immediate control; they cannot censor what they cannot see. Even if censorship advances across the web, old email-distribution lists can keep discussions going. Think of that possibility as high-tech samizdat. And don’t dismiss it! Build your own email lists now.
- Above all, however, we need technical experts with the genius and the inclination necessary to design new ways for us to interact, free of meddlesome third parties. The internet was designed to make secure communication possible. Shouldn’t it be possible for us to control which sites we see, which opinions we encounter, which information we access?
Meanwhile, as we wait and hope for a technical solution, I suggest that we should not willingly withdraw from the battle over public opinion. Let’s not make the mistake of censoring ourselves, just to avoid being censored by others. If we are going to be silenced—and that issue is not yet settled—let’s go down fighting.
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