I did not initially want to make this blog into a ‘news feed’, or a running response commentary to every free speech drama on the internet. I wanted to take a cooler approach, and offer some good, solid reasons why we should all defend the freedom to speak and to think as we see fit. I wanted to offer some “aerial photo” perspective to the problem of vigorous dialogue and free inquiry, in an open society. However the sheer outrageousness of recent events is something I cannot go without responding to. As the saying goes: you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.
Last night, GAB.COM – my preferred social media platform – was unceremoniously and arbitrarily scrubbed from the internet. The services that did this, did so in the full knowledge of what they were doing. They gave no public justification for it, but they didn’t really need to. We all understand exactly what they’re doing. They did it to Alex Jones just two months ago. For whatever reason, they think they need a fig leaf to do it. So, they waited for something like this Squirrel Hill shooting – and then spent the next 12 hours doing everything they could to associate Andrew Torba and his platform with the shooter.
Crushing Your Enemies…
It is fascinating to note how those who set out to consciously do evil, still need to supply themselves with a moral reason for why what they are doing is a good thing. The murder of 11 jews in Pittsburgh was justified by the self-righteous belief that “jews are slaughtering my people”. The censorship of Gab was justified by the self-righteous belief that “alternative media is an incubator for hatred and violence”. Both of these justifications are equally ridiculous. To the perpetrators, though, it doesn’t matter. They’re committed to their belief, come what may. They have to be, because morality is the engine that drives human action.
Some will want to take this line of thinking in the following direction: “but what about Stephen Paddock? Didn’t he have an active Twitter account? What about Elliot Rodger? Didn’t he have an active YouTube account? Shouldn’t Twitter and YouTube be subject to the same standard as Gab? Shouldn’t these platforms be ostracised as well?”, but this is to miss the point entirely. Those who are suppressing Andrew Torba’s freedom to compete in an open market (as well as our freedom to choose with whom we wish to associate) are not doing so for reasons of principle. Their moral justifications for their actions are not statements of principle. They are superficial rationalizations, meant to assuage their own consciences.
What is happening to Gab, is happening because Twitter, Facebook, Google and all the associated services that rely on them for their financial well-being (Stripe, and PayPal, Microsoft Azure, and all the rest), are much bigger and much more powerful than Gab, but Gab was becoming an economic threat, and is already a political obsession for, what Sargon of Akkad calls, “The Moral Cartel of Silicon Valley“. In short, for Silicon Valley, might makes right.
Think this is hyperbole? Think it’s a conspiracy theory? Perhaps. But here are a few facts that militate otherwise:
- Since July of 2018, both Facebook and Twitter in particular, have been taking a beating financially. Their stock prices have plummeted, and their user bases have been very heavily pruned as a result of increased scrutiny.
- All three platforms have been besieged by privacy and fraud scandals as far back as 2016, and they’ve earned reputations not just for being censorious but also profligate with user data, which is contributing to reductions in user growth.
- Stripe’s CEO has been caught openly colluding with leftist activists, with the explicit goal of attacking politically incorrect platforms. Gab is one of those platforms.
- Gab’s growth has been steady over the last year. In February, it landed $4.8m in venture capital, and just this month raised another $1m in open financing on StartEngine.
- Meanwhile, as Facebook and Twitter users decline, Gab’s userbase has grown from just under 400,000 to almost 800,000 users between February and this month — including tens of thousands of users from Brazil, Africa, and other heavily censored places.
- Gab, through Andrew Torba, has consistently maintained an absolutely libertarian position on free speech, and has refused to participate in the “European model” of online speech, as Google put it. This makes Gab a direct competitor, offering something none of these services offer anymore.
Free Speech “Doesn’t Work” – But For Whom?
The New York Times, yesterday, tried to argue that free speech doesn’t work online, because it’s “ripe for exploitation”:
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, once guided by the principle of free speech, have come to realize that an anything-goes approach is ripe for exploitation, and ultimately bad for business.
“The challenge faced by any platform that allows everything permitted under U.S. law is that if left unabated, the most objectionable content will inevitably take over,” said Micah Schaffer, a former policy leader at YouTube and Snap who is now a technology policy consultant. “If an online community is dominated by porn, beheadings or white supremacists, most people aren’t going to think it’s a good place for their baby photos.”
The New York Times is just wrong about this. First, there is no data correlating a free speech position with poor financials. In fact, as I’ve at least superficially demonstrated above, it’s pretty clear that the turn toward the “European model” has had an incredibly detrimental effect on Twitter and Facebook, financially. What’s more, YouTube has never been financially viable.
Second, is Gab actually “dominated by porn, beheadings, or white supremacists“? Not according to one study:
…Interestingly, only 0.14% of the posts are marked as NSFW. This is surprising given the fact that one of the reasons that Apple rejected Gab’s mobile app is due to the share of NSFW content . From browsing the Gab platform, we also can anecdotally con- firm the existence of NSFW posts that are not marked as such, raising questions about how Gab moderates and enforces the use of NSFW tags by users. When looking a bit closer at their policies, Gab notes that they use a 1964 United States Supreme Court Ruling  on pornography that provides the famous “I’ll known it when I see it” test…
…Using the modified Hatebase dictionary… we find that 5.4% of all Gab posts include a hate word. In comparison, Gab has 2.4 times the rate of hate words when compared to Twitter, but less than halve the rate of hate words compared to 4chan’s Politically Incorrect board (/pol/) …
So, while Gab admittedly has more “hate” and “porn” content than Twitter — which one would expect, given it’s free speech stance — it is nowhere near being “dominated” by these things. In fact, also as one would expect, 4chan has them beat by double. 4chan has had its share of controversies that have leaked into “meat space” over the last three or four years, and yet, it remains unmolested for its transgressions. This is because 4chan is no competitor to standard social media. It is fringe-by-design. Not so, Gab. Torba has aspirations for Gab that will eventually take it mainstream (if it hasn’t already started to become so). Thus, we see yet again, that the hegemons of tech are merely grasping for a moral excuse for their bad behavior.
But they’re also “virtue signalling” to their new markets. You see, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, have all made overseas deals meant to expand their reach into foreign markets. Most famously, Google and Apple with China, but also Facebook and Twitter with the European Union. Those deals have committed the tech hegemons to openly affirming political positions that would be anathema to the average American, but par for the course in more totalitarian-friendly nations. By ostracising Gab, they are telling their new masters, “we will play ball with you”.
Thus, what we see happening now, is the injection of European leftist and Chinese communist political philosophy into the American political ethos, by way of social media technology, and the gradual leaching of commitments to free speech, free association, and property rights as the new philosophies take root in the minds of Big Tech users. All under the false banner of ‘expanding markets’. It is sad, and ironic, actually. It used to be, that because America was so energetic, and so free, its culture, its political philosophy, and its economic model, were absolutely craved by europeans and far easterners. Now, we can see the tide turning in the other direction. The worst of Europe and the far east are coming back up the straw, and choking the life out of what is left of the American passion for freedom.
Enemy of The People
I have not had a Facebook account since at least 2012. I have not had a Twitter account in two years. I have not been using Google products of any kind (with the exception of the core Android OS), for about a year now. I moved off these products for a few reasons. First, because I didn’t like the idea of being land-locked to one-size-fits-all, single-point-of-failure services, that care little for my privacy. Google and Facebook certainly fit that bill. Second, because I realized after engaging on the social media giants for a short time, that my moods and my opinions were being manipulated and funnelled. I noticed it, even before they began to openly admit to such things. Lastly, because I cannot abide by the dissolution of free speech as a principle, and all of these companies have demonstrated an absolute contempt for free speech.
Until now, I have not actively advocated against these companies. This is because I also have a naive commitment to the free market. I thought, as long as these firms are fair economic actors, then my choice to switch to other service providers is my business, and advocating that others do the same is tantamount to demanding that everyone else conform to my preference. However, it was a mistake to assume that these firms — while horribly mismanaged internally, and guilty of transgressing against their own users — were actually fair economic actors. History and experience has borne out the fact that they are willing to use whatever means necessary to crush the competition, fair or otherwise. The actions taken against Gab, both overt and covert, are no better in character than the campaign against the latest supreme court justice. As such, I will be doing everything in my power, now, to warn people off these platforms – both for their own good, and for the good of society. They must not be allowed to continue to engage in the destruction of free speech, and the disingenuous suppression of fair competition.
Addressing the de jour Objections
The Private Company Complaint
At this point, the usual libertarian arguments will start ringing in people’s ears: “But, they’re private companies! They can do what they want!”
Both of these assertions are incorrect. First, even in a libertarian free market utopia, private companies are bound by the rules of private property, contract, and fair play. Libertopia would not license me to poison my competitor’s CEO, or spread fraudulent rumors about how poisonous my competitors products are. The rules of engagement constrain a company’s behavior, whether that is in Libertopia, or here in this very messy reality. They cannot “do whatever they want”.
Second, here in this very messy reality, the “private companies” you’re referring to, are not private companies. They are publicly held, political/legal fictions called “incorporations”, bound by the laws of trade and finance governing those fictions. What’s more, both Google and Facebook have received hundreds of millions of dollars in public financing in the form of direct subsidies, grants, and tax exemptions. Third, they’ve been granted special legal privileges shielding them from a number of laws that actual private companies are in fact subject to right now. There is nothing that says we can’t change the current laws to expect better treatment of customers, clients, and partners, and to demand better behavior in the marketplace.
Thirdly, even if I did accept the “muh private company” argument, it’s not being applied uniformly. Gab, under these standards, is also a “private company”, and yet, here we are in a world where it has been driven offline, ostensibly because it tried to “do what it wants”. Where are the Libertarians defending Gab, as free to “do what they want”? So, clearly, leaving private companies to do what they want, is not an actual value held by the people complaining about this — including Libertarians.
The First Amendment Idiots
Ok, the Libertarian might concede, but The First Amendment isn’t meant to protect you from social consequences! It’s only meant to protect you from an over-reaching congress!
That is true. But so what? I find it amusing how left-leaning libertarians are so eager to suddenly take a ‘strict’ or ‘limited’ interpretation of Constitutional precedents, when it suits them. The first amendment to the Constitution is a piece of law grounded in a long tradition of English common law, that embodies a strict respect for open debate and dialogue, in the public square. That strict respect, was borne of centuries of hard-won experience fighting the tyranny not only of unjust rulers, but of mob justice as well. As you can see from the passages I have posted elsewhere here, by John Stewart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, a healthy suspicion of the majority opinion has long been a staple of western culture and jurisprudence. To suggest that we ought to abandon the cultural prejudice toward free speech and against the beying majority, because it’s not now codified explicitly, is naive recklessness. This is nothing more than an attempt to enthrone this generation’s mob justice as the once-and-for-all decision of how we should organize socially.
It is true that legal constraints on speech and social constraints on speech are very different ‘magisteria’ (to borrow Gould’s old term), and that social constraints are typically much further reaching, and much more varied, than the legal constraints. This is for good reason. The things I ought to be permitted to say in church, are going to differ from those I am permitted to say at work, or at home, or in the movie theater, or on the beach — and each of these places is going to impose a consequence for infraction that is appropriate to the context.
What I am arguing here, is that the constraints on speech for people engaged in what is effectively a “public square”, and the legal expectations on platforms that act as “public squares”, ought to be as open as the legal standard implicit in the first amendment — and, I am insisting that there is no good reason not to maintain that standard. This is exactly what Gab, and Andrew Torba have also been insisting all along.
Yet, rather than provide a coherent argument for why this should not be the case, the tech hegemons, the mainstream media, and leftist activists have instead chosen to engage in scare-mongering, and legally grey collusion against Gab, in order to silence it, and free speech along with it.