We have previously discussed Twitter’s robust censorship program that repeatedly has been denounced for bias in taking sides on scientific, social, and political controversies. The problem is that, when you have an army of censors with their thumbs on buttons to flag or bar comments, the tendency is ever expanding levels of censorship. Indeed, much censorship is not thumbless through automatic systems to remove certain comments. That was evident this week.
Not only did Twitter flag a picture of a veteran wishing the country a Happy Fourth of July (presumably due to his combat scars) but it flagged New Zealand foreign policy expert Anne-Marie Brady who mocked the Chinese government. The incident is particularly notable after Twitter recently admitted to censoring criticism of India’s government.
Brady is a professor at the University of Canterbury and an authority on the Chinese regime. Like many, Brady mocked the recent Communist Party’s over-the-top celebration of Chinese President Xi Jinping. She soon found that some of her tweets were “unavailable,” Twitter’s version of being “disappeared.”
What happened next is all-too-familiar: nothing. Brady tried to get someone to respond to the censorship and received no answer. Indeed, Twitter makes it extraordinarily difficult to reach anyone on such issues. While professing commitment to transparency, the company is notorious for being unresponsive and closed to criticism, even efforts to learn why actions have been taken on such tweets. It was only after Edward Lucas, a journalist for the Times of Britain, inquired that the company finally responded to him rather than Brady.
Her account was then restored without an apology or acknowledgement. Brady dryly noted “Seems like @Twitter may have briefly forgotten they don’t work for Xi Jinping.”
The assumption is that this is the work of Chinese agents who submit a torrent of complaints to trigger a flagging. Various groups have used the same technique to cancel opposing views. Twitter does nothing about it. Rather than have a presumption in favor of free speech, it automatically flags material pending proof that it is worthy of publication. That often means that it does not disagree with Twitter’s own view of certain sensitive subjects. Absent media coverage, the Chinese would likely have succeeded in silencing Brady with the help of Twitter.
As discussed earlier, members of Congress are now pushing for public and private censorship on the internet and in other forums. They are being joined by an unprecedented alliance of academics, writers and activists calling for everything from censorship to incarceration to blacklists. For example, an article published in The Atlantic by Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith and University of Arizona law professor Andrew Keane Woods called for Chinese-style censorship of the internet, stating that “in the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong.”
Much of the effort by politicians and activists has been directed at using Big Tech to censor or bar opposing viewpoints, seeking to achieve indirectly what cannot be achieved directly in curtailing free speech. Congress could never engage in this type of raw content discrimination between news organizations under the First Amendment.
However, it can use its influence on private companies to limit free speech.
The move makes obvious sense if the desire is to shape and control opinion — the essence of state-controlled media. Controlling speech on certain platforms is meaningless if citizens can still hear opposing views from other sources.
You must not only control the narrative but also eliminate alternatives to it.