by Nicholas L. Waddy
For Big Tech billionaires, these are the best of times, and the worst of times.
Why the best? Because the long arm of social media and online commerce has never reached further and deeper into Americans’ culture, spending habits, lifestyles, and worldview. Likewise, the net worth of these billionaires has risen to undreamed-of heights. COVID was, for tech barons, a blessing in disguise: it trapped Americans indoors, where they could do little else but browse the web, consume digital entertainment, and spend their stimulus dollars on imported Chinese doohickeys. Even as the dreaded virus has retreated, Big Tech has successfully locked in its gains.
Why the worst of times, though? The very rise of Big Tech has portended greater scrutiny. The debasement of Big Tech’s competitors and natural enemies—from brick-and-mortar stores to Trump supporters—has ensured that the drumbeat of criticism of social media companies and online retailers has never been more stridently percussive.
The fruits of this anti-Big Tech fury are evident in polls, which show that Americans doubt the wisdom of censorship and deplatforming, and they would like social media companies to “abide by the First Amendment” and “provide free speech guarantees to their users.” Amazon, meanwhile, gets a relative pass from ordinary Americans, 72 percent of whom still view the retailing behemoth favorably. Twitter, by contrast, at 37 percent favorability, is down in Nancy Pelosi territory.
The headwinds for Big Tech go far beyond public attitudes. Politicians are taking, or planning, a range of measures to tackle these companies’ perceived depredations. Democrats are advancing a series of bills in the House to strengthen antitrust laws with an eye to encouraging the breakup of online monopolies. Republicans are proposing similar bills, but with an emphasis on guaranteeing conservatives access to online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Similarly, many states are pondering, or have already passed, comprehensive bills designed to punish Big Tech’s campaigns of censorship. Florida’s landmark bill, though, has already been subjected to a federal injunction. Even foreign governments are getting in on the act, with Poland and Hungary seeking to require social media companies to respect free speech.
Donald Trump, the most famous victim of Big Tech’s highly selective penchant for deplatforming, has joined the fray, most recently with a major class action lawsuit against Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which owns YouTube. All of these platforms banned the sitting president of the United States after the Capitol Riot on January 6th. Trump made statements during and after the riot that, while not advocating lawlessness, were viewed by these social media companies as insufficiently condemnatory. Problematic, of course, is their comparative disinterest in silencing or punishing any of the many leftist voices which gave aid and comfort to the much deadlier and more destructive anti-police rioters in the summer of 2020.
Will any of these legislative or legal strategies work? That remains to be seen, but it’s evident that they haven’t yet forced these social media titans to budge. Facebook’s Oversight Board recently approved of the company’s ban on Trump, and Facebook will not even consider rescinding it until after the 2022 elections.
Despite the failure, thus far, of these multi-pronged efforts to bring Big Tech to heel, conservatives must remain vigilant, and if at all possible they must find new fronts on which to attack. The reason is simple: social media platforms increasingly control, or at the very least mediate, public discourse. Conservatives, moreover, cannot win any debate in which they are forbidden to participate. Therefore, the baleful precedent recently established for the censoring and outright banning of mostly conservative voices must be overturned, before these tactics proliferate and online speech becomes a monologue reaffirming leftist values and principles.
In this light, conservatives should consider how isolated they have already become. They are an endangered species in all sectors of our education system. They are a besieged minority in Hollywood and in our popular culture in general, which is saturated with leftist messaging. Neo-Marxists rule over an increasing number of corporate boardrooms, while shareholder meetings and corporate HR departments have become social engineering laboratories. The relentless negativity that the mainstream media spews in the direction of conservatives is now accepted as the primary duty of “woke” journalists.
Given this bleak cultural landscape for conservatives, the relative success of conservatives in sharing their viewpoints, and in articulating a counternarrative to the America-hating, race-baiting socialism of the Left, via social media—think of the legions of new voters recruited by President Trump—is the very reason why Big Tech is so keen now to silence us. There are only so many major institutions that we can afford to be frozen out of, however, before the majority of Americans simply lose touch with the conservative point of view, and begin to believe the demonized images of conservatives peddled by our left-leaning thought-masters by default.
Now is the time, therefore, for conservatives to intensify the struggle against Big Tech, and to pressure these companies to reverse their campaigns of censorship and deplatforming. We must do so, in fact, with a fervor borne of desperation—as though our very (political) lives depend on it, because they do!
It may also be time for conservatives to make some strategic alliances with certain leftists who want to break up Big Tech companies on antitrust grounds. We may not agree with these radicals’ anti-capitalist rationale, but we must ask ourselves: can a social media landscape dominated by a few major corporations led by inveterate and outspoken leftists ever be compelled, by public pressure, legislation, or legal action, to treat conservatives fairly and equitably? Or, would the splintering of these companies serve democracy and free speech better, by creating a multitude of smaller technology companies, some of which would inevitably seek to ingratiate themselves with a liberty-loving customer base?
My own view is that the moral and political calculus has become remarkably simple: whatever harms Big Tech will, inevitably, help conservatives, free speech, and thus America.
I say, therefore: Down with Big Tech! Down with Facebook! Down with Twitter! Down with YouTube!
Let us not rest until these companies are no more, and a gaggle of smaller and less menacing successor companies have taken their place.
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Nicholas L. Waddy, an associate professor of history at SUNY Alfred, blogs at www.waddyisright.com.