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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 1

Social media censorship: Regulation or innovation?

In the past, when some wild-bearded rebel emerged from the jungle to cry “Revolution!” and tried to topple the generalissimo of some humid non-democracy, among the first things on his to-do list was to take over the radio and television stations and newspapers. This was because controlling the news was extremely important. If the rebels could convince the nation that the revolution was desirable, or unstoppable, the generalissimo’s soldiers might drop their rifles, as his cronies scamper for the border and tap into their Swiss bank accounts. El Jefe could then be introduced to a firing squad while the populace blinked up at a new flag and fingered currency bearing unfamiliar faces.

Today, we have more than radio, television, and newspapers as news sources for the power-hungry to covet. Websites, search engines, and social media are the new instruments of political power.

A majority of Americans get their news from news websites (33 percent) or social media (20 percent), according to a Pew Research Center survey from August 2018. Young people were nearly twice as likely to rely on social media (36 percent). These numbers suggest that, in time, news websites will remain strong and social media’s influence will grow. These will likely provide the best avenues for those seeking political power by controlling the news.

Google’s search engine is the preeminent way to find information on the internet, becoming the most-visited website in the world, but Google hasn't been an impartial guide. It has bent to governments demanding censorship, most notably Communist China. There, Google participated in “The Great Firewall of China,” until criticism caused it to back out. Censorship, however, can be subtler than the e-thuggery Red China employs. It can be disguised as pious fact-checking, or it can be inherent in an algorithm that disadvantages certain viewpoints. Conservatives have good reason not to trust Google to provide a level playing field. 

During Barack Obama’s administration, Google representatives attended White House meetings more than once a week on average, The Intercept reported. During the 2016 election cycle, employees of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., and its subsidiaries donated $5,870,470 to Democrats, according to GovPredict.com, while donating just $403,042 to Republicans. Their donations to Hillary Clinton’s campaign did not produce the desired result. A leaked video released in September 2018 vividly revealed the emotional reaction of Google executives to Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

After Clinton’s loss, Google executives held a “woke” wake, where they wept and hugged, discussed white male privilege, and pondered the options for employees who wanted to leave the United States because of Donald Trump’s election. CFO Ruth Porat promised that Google would “use the great strength, and resources, and reach we have to continue to advance really important values.” Google followed up by incorporating a clumsy fact-checking feature into its search engine. This was justified as “providing users with context around stories, so that they can know the bigger picture.” A Daily Caller News Foundation investigation exposed how the feature targeted conservative news sources while ignoring liberal bias. Google removed it in 2018, but claims of Google manipulating search results remain. 

Unfortunately, conservative content does not have to be censored to be slighted. Journalists are predominately left-leaning, so any news search is likely to produce left-leaning results. The common impulse is to click on the top results returned by a search already biased toward one side. This increases those websites’ traffic and, as the Google search engine values traffic, those sites are more likely to rank first in future searches. Since there are fewer right-leaning news sites, fewer are returned in any search, and they will come lower in the results. This reduces their traffic, pushing them even lower in future search results. Only when specific search terms found on conservative sites are used are they likely to be returned as results and, even then, they may be buried under left-leaning analysis. The eventual outcome is unsurprising. A study conducted by Allsides.com in 2018 revealed that the Google News homepage returned results that were 75 percent left-leaning, 20 percent centrist, and just five percent right-leaning. 

Not only does this lessen the exposure of conservative sites, but it also reduces the ad revenue they generate. YouTube, which is owned by Google, is the foremost venue for video sharing. It lets content creators post their creations, while it sells ad space accompanying their videos. The makers receive a share of the ad revenue if their video is viewed the required number of times. In 2016, in response to complaints, YouTube allowed advertisers, who previously had no control over where their ads were placed, to choose not to have them accompany videos with which they didn't want to be associated. This led to some creators being demonetized. This was called the “Adpocalypse,” for its catastrophic effect on creators who relied on ad income. While some videos warranted ad removal, the threat of “cancel culture” boycotts could scare squeamish advertisers away from videos advancing conservative ideals.

A disrespectful video of a Japanese suicide victim led to an “Adpocalypse 2.0,” in which YouTube increased the threshold a creator must pass to earn remuneration. Conservative creators with small audiences were cut off from compensation. A squabble between progressive commentator Carlos Maza and conservative talk show host and humorist Steven Crowder produced “Adpocalypse 3.0.” It led YouTube to place great reliance on an algorithm to identify content containing hate speech or other forbidden material. It blindly demonetized or deplatformed channels that cover sensitive issues. One channel set up to teach high schoolers about World War II was removed because it included video of the Nazis, a vital part of covering that war. A similar politically correct AI effort, a YouTube fact-checking program designed to counter the spread of conspiracy theories, failed in 2019 when it displayed text debunking 9/11 plots next to the video of the Notre Dame cathedral fire.

Some creators, who left YouTube because of censorship or because they were demonetized, sought financial support through Patreon. This platform allows creators of videos and other art to receive donations from supporters, in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. In 2018 Patreon banned commentators Milo Yiannopoulos, James Allsup, and Carl Benjamin (better known as “Sargon of Arkkad”). Consequently, some who had sought support for conservative and libertarian views through Patreon, which had previously declared a belief in free speech, are now seeking to establish a similar service with a stronger commitment to viewpoint freedom.

Social media offered a less centralized alternative to “corporate” news. Skipping the intermediate steps of reporter, editor, and publisher, news was being reported by “citizen journalists.” The news might be insignificant – such as the cute thing Tiddles did with his toy mouse or what Tiffany thought about her ex-friend Brandi – but there were also personal accounts of hurricanes, near-instant reports of mass shootings, and real-time reactions to presidential debates. 

The numbers reveal social media’s gargantuan reach. Twitter has 126 million daily users. Snapchat has 210 million daily users. Reddit has 330 million users. As of September 2019, 1.62 billion people on average log onto Facebook daily. 

Inevitably, ugly content appeared, and every social media platform enacted censorship policies. Facebook has a guidebook detailing the content it blocks. Most of it is common sense: no terrorism, child pornography, cannibalism, etc. In February 2019, TheVerge published an article describing the harsh life of Facebook content moderators, faced with thousands of images of atrocious violence and perversion. It is hard to imagine an eight-hour day doing what they do, 40-hours a week, week after week. But content moderators also screen for politically incorrect material, and here conservatives tend to get poor treatment.  In 2018, for example, moderators pulled videos posted by Prager University which criticized conditions in Islamic countries and the current state of masculinity, branding them Islamophobic and sexist.

Facebook has recently been criticized by the Left for not fact-checking political ads. Politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez believe that some sort of review panel should be permitted to grade the veracity of these ads. While a private entity is free to deny a platform to anyone, establishing the platform’s opaque processes as semi-official judges of truth in our elections is troubling.

Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, evaded the issue by announcing that Twitter would ban all political ads. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has resisted fact-checking but is said to be considering labeling ads as not fact-checked, capping the number of ads a single candidate can run at a time, and banning ads in the three days leading up to an election. Conservatives are leery of such restrictions, while progressives want more, despite being hostile to Facebook. Billionaire George Soros, who has put millions of his own fortune into progressive causes, claimed at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos that Zuckerberg is conspiring with Trump to help Trump win re-election. Perhaps it was a gambit to pressure Zuckerberg into accepting the fact-checking of political ads as a way to distance himself from Trump.

It is unlikely conservatism will overcome the Left's dominance of the news media. But if conservatives want their truths told, they will have to create more content, resist censorship, find sources of revenue, and claim their place in social media. There is reason for optimism. Conservatives have produced media surprises. Rush Limbaugh revitalized AM radio, making it the rare conservative-dominated medium. Fox News set up a “fair and balanced” alternative to the unified choir of ABC/NBC/CBS/CNN/PBS. President Trump turned Twitter into a pointy stick to jab his way through the legacy media’s coverage, which has been 90 percent negative, and communicate directly with the American people. 

Who knows? Perhaps there is a conservative entrepreneur with a neatly trimmed beard who wants to help facilitate the next communications revolution.

Photo credit: Anthony Quintano. (CC BY 2.0). Image cropped.

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Ed Morrow is an author and illustrator who lives in Vermont with his wife, Laurie, and their son, Ned. Morrow’s books include: The Halloween Handbook, 599 Things You Should Never Do, and The Grim Reaper’s Book of Days. His work has appeared in National Review, The American Spectator, and many other outlets.