A little over a week ago, Facebook and a host of other companies removed Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist and possible Nicholas Cage performance-art project, from their platforms to much online rejoicing. Both Jones’s personal accounts and Infowars pages, including various videos, were expunged from these platforms. Since then, the online liberal-left has taken Twitter to task for not doing the same.
Then yesterday came the announcement that the Facebook page of teleSUR English, the English language version of the Venezuela-based television network sponsored by five Latin American governments, had been removed from the social media platform with no reason given, the second time this has happened this year. When the administrator of the left-wing site Revolution News scheduled an article from teleSUR English covering this incident of censorship to be posted to his own outlet’s Facebook page, he received a request from Facebook within seconds asking him to secure his account and confirm his primary location. (TeleSUR English has now been reinstated).
The point here isn’t that these cases are the same. According to Facebook and others, Jones was removed for violating their policies against hate speech, whereas it’s never been made clear why teleSUR English has been removed from Facebook twice now. But both point to the trouble of turning wealthy, corporate tech overlords into moderators of content.
These instances come on the heels of a number of other tech censorship controversies. A week ago, Facebook temporarily “unpublished” Venezuelanalysis.com, a site critical of Western policy and coverage of Venezuela. A week before that, Politico reported that Facebook had shut down dozens of pages and accounts it deemed “inauthentic,” including ones using the hashtag #AbolishICE, and a page promoting a counter-rally to the recent failed “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C.
As Facebook explained, “some of the activity is consistent with” what was done by Russian troll farms since 2016. Except the “Unite the Right” counter-rally was a real event made by real US activists none too happy to find out their page had been deleted from the platform. Whoops.
Could this have something to with the fact that, to root out troll activity, Facebook has partnered with the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a project of the Atlantic Council, a think tank funded by NATO, weapons manufacturers, Gulf states, and a series of other government and corporate organizations? Quite possibly. But it’s also the result of relentless public and government pressure on online platforms since 2016 to purge undesirable content.
Left-wing media were already targeted before this most recent incident. When Google changed its algorithm in response to pressure to deal with the “threat” of fake news, outlets like Alternet, the World Socialist Website, Truthout, Counterpunch, and others saw a precipitous drop in traffic to their sites. Facebook’s decision to deprioritize publishers in general within its news feed — another move driven by widespread panic over “fake news” and disinformation — had a similarly damaging effect, and actually amplified “fake news” while decimating independent outlets in the countries in which it was first tested.
Meanwhile, Germany passed a law forcing tech companies to remove undesirable posts, which quickly resulted in the suspension of a satirical magazine, the removal of a video about the revival of Holocaust revisionism, and the deletion of a tweet by the bill’s own author, who currently serves as Germany’s Social Democratic foreign minister. And this is by no means an exhaustive list of examples.
At first glance, it may be comforting that Facebook purged Jones and Infowars on the more narrow grounds of hate speech violations; that, as some have argued, far from its “knee-jerk framing” as a free speech issue, it was merely “an attempt to clean up the waters he has muddied with misinformation and hatred.” The trouble is hate speech is a notoriously elastic concept, with governments around the world prosecuting critics of Israeli government policy, war, and others sympathetic to the Left as purveyors of hate speech. Last year, Germany shut down an anti-capitalist news site over its “left-wing extremist hate speech.” Similar grounds have been used to go after critics of police.
This all points to two things. One, anyone on the liberal-left needs to vigorously oppose handing these platforms a mandate to act as moderators of content. Not only are the algorithms they use to flush out undesirable content deeply flawed — as anyone inexplicably suspended from Twitter can attest to — but trusting a group of faceless, corporate bureaucrats to decide what is and isn’t legitimate news is a recipe for disaster for the Left. Your favorite left-wing outlet, including this one, could just as easily be accused of being “conspiratorial,” antisemitic, or “consistent with” Russian activity and deleted on this basis, with devastating consequences for its future.
Secondly, it points to the need to take aggressive government action against monopolistic companies like Google and Facebook, which together control 84 percent of digital advertising dollars, and increasingly serve as the gatekeepers for virtually all of the content we consume online. This is a problem for the Left, but also for the free press in general, with Facebook’s global head of news partnerships recently telling a group of publishers that they would essentially have to play by Facebook’s rules or face extinction. Any entity with that much power is a dangerous one.
Whether by using antitrust measures, treating them as public utilities, or pushing for cooperative ownership, we need to shrink the power of tech giants before they become Orwellian states unto themselves.
Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
This article was originally published by Jacobin magazine.