REPORTED BY: KARA FREDERICK | FEBRUARY 23, 2022
Portions of this article were adapted from the author’s recently published paper at The Heritage Foundation, “Combating Big Tech’s Totalitarianism: A Road Map.”
Last week, our Canadian neighbors mobilized their national security apparatus against working-class citizens protesting government overreach. The Biden administration is no doubt taking notes. In fact, the contours of a similar strategy are already emerging in the United States. First, the FBI reportedly tagged parents opposed to critical race theory with a “terrorism” label under the direction of Biden’s Department of Justice. Then, the DOJ revealed plans to stand up a domestic terror unit fixated on “anti-government or anti-authority” ideologies. Now, a new Department of Homeland Security terrorism bulletin classifies Americans as potential violent extremists if they question the administration’s Covid-19 policies or election integrity narrative by spreading “mis- dis- and mal-information” on social media. This should send a chill up Americans’ spines.
The willingness of the U.S. government to classify movements to the right of leftist ideology as “domestic extremism” lays the groundwork for the purging of these citizens from digital platforms — and all of digital life. We are entering a reality in which tech companies target average conservative organizations, users, and speech as part of this push. Just after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Google co-founder Sergey Brin referred to Trump voters as “extremists” and suggested using Google’s tech incubator, Jigsaw, to shape their opinions. In July 2021, Facebook began testing “extremism” warnings on users who engaged with popular, mainstream conservative accounts. This problem is a small outgrowth of a broader one shaping the new digital atmosphere: the efforts of companies such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and TikTok to skew the political and cultural environment of this nation and its inheritors.
These corporations interfere in our elections, actively undermine our First Amendment freedoms by silencing speech they don’t like, work together to disadvantage or destroy existing or potential competitors, and partner with government actors to intimidate, surveil, and silence Americans. They’re even purposefully poisoning the next generation, targeting American youth with highly addictive content that has been shown to do legitimate harm.
Governments are not the only actors capable of encroaching on Americans’ individual liberties. Private, monopolistic corporations should be held accountable if they violate these liberties to the degree Big Tech has in the past two years alone. Efforts to rein them in should reflect an imperative to protect Americans’ natural rights against abuses flowing from the consolidation of power — whether by the government, private corporations, or a combination of the two. Big Tech’s willingness to shut off direct access to digital information, their demonstrated pattern of information manipulation, and their effect on America’s culture of free speech have decisive political and cultural ramifications.
Censorship against viewpoints to the right of center runs across platforms and is pervasive and accelerating. The Media Research Center found in September 2021 that Twitter and Facebook censor Republican members of Congress at a rate of 53-to-1 compared to Democrat lawmakers. By its own admission, Facebook created two internal tools in the aftermath of Trump’s 2016 victory that suppressed “very conservative” media reach on its platform. Google stifled conservative-leaning outlets such as The Daily Caller, Breitbart, and this publication during the 2020 election season, with Breitbart’s Google search visibility reportedly shrinking by 99 percent compared to the 2016 election cycle. Finally, at least 17 digital platforms banned Trump or affiliated accounts within a two-week span in early January 2021 — all while Chinese Communist Party, Iranian, and Taliban spokesmen enjoy a voice on these American-owned platforms.
To contest this imbalance, conservatives attempted to take matters into their own hands and “build their own” digital platform. Yet when such a company, Parler, developed an app that reached the top of the Apple store in the early days of January 2021, Apple, Google, and Amazon Web Services acted within approximately 48 hrs of each other to vanquish it. Parler has yet to recover a fraction of the users it gained during January 2021. The “build your own” argument wilted in the face of concerted opposition by these entrenched juggernauts.
Further, the distinction between the coercive power of the government and that of a private company is negated when they work hand-in-glove to achieve the government’s ends. Jen Psaki admitted from the White House podium in July that the government was “flagging problematic posts” for Facebook to censor. Within a month, the accounts she and the surgeon general surfaced were removed from Facebook. And that’s just what the two Biden officials admitted out loud. In fact, Psaki again took to the podium in February 2022 to declare that media app Spotify could do more regarding comedian Joe Rogan, intimating the private company should expand its censorship of the podcasting star for platforming views that buck the administration’s Covid narrative.
Less than a month earlier, Biden had called on tech companies to police Covid-related speech. Even at the state level, at least one lawsuit alleges that the Office of the Secretary of State for California worked directly with Twitter to flag and scrutinize a conservative commentator over his election skepticism, ultimately resulting in his suspension in February 2021.
Suppression of conservative speech as a response to political pressure is not limited to social media alone. Online payment processors and fundraising platforms, email delivery services, and web hosting services are all taking their cues from and following in Big Tech’s footsteps. What happens in the future when your individual environmental, social, and governance score or level of climate change compliance is unsatisfactory for every online banking service intent on staying in the good graces of the government? In effect, our country is sleepwalking into a CCP-style social credit system.
This type of control also tears at the cultural underpinnings of our society. The disposition toward freedom of expression is central to the American way of life. Supporting an unpopular opinion in the digital public square or donating to political causes should not mean risking your livelihood. These practices erode our culture of free speech, chill open discourse, and engender self-censorship. In a more concrete sense, Big Tech’s practices result in measurable, destructive effects on the next generation of young citizens. Author Abigail Shrier documents social media’s influence on social contagions of the moment, stating that these sites offer an “endless supply of mentors” to fan the flames of gender dissatisfaction among teen girls.
According to Facebook’s own research, 6 percent of teen Instagram users who reported suicidal thoughts traced their emergence directly to Instagram. Teenage girls in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia are likely developing verbal and physical tics by watching influencers on TikTok who exhibit the same habits, in addition to being fed eating-disorder videos, according to The Wall Street Journal. (As of early 2021, 25 percent of TikTok users in America were teenagers or younger.)
Big Tech companies have proven themselves irresponsible stewards of their government-enhanced power. A recalibration of their relationship to the American people is warranted. The answer exists in solutions that promote human flourishing and arrest the infringement of God-given rights by private entities, such as freedom of speech. American policymakers and representatives should take on Big Tech as uniquely deleterious to a healthy body politic and invest in a diversity of tactics to meet the moment. The aggregate effect of these measures should be far more scrutiny, pressure, and oversight over Big Tech companies.
A comprehensive agenda to end Big Tech’s undue influence over Americans’ daily lives and subversion of their rights is necessary. Measures should confront legitimate anti-competitive behavior by these global oligopolies by enforcing antitrust laws and reforming them where necessary. Lawmakers must also ensure that the government does not continue to use tech companies as their agents to chill speech. The deployment of Big Tech’s ad-tech models — the heart of what allows these companies to manipulate and exploit the data of Americans — merits particular congressional scrutiny.
Additionally, Big Tech executives should be held civilly liable for legitimate instances of fraud and breach of contract, just as GoFundMe’s decision to refund the Freedom Convoy donations instead of dispensing them to charities of their choice was likely influenced by threats of a fraud investigation.
Transparency in content moderation practices, algorithmic impacts, and data use should be non-negotiable for these companies. Americans have a right to know how their data is collected, stored, and shared in plain English. Data privacy and a national data protection framework are also critical to righting Big Tech’s wrongs.
In tandem, Americans should be given new ways to fight back when their rights are infringed upon, as well as obtain prompt and meaningful recourse from Big Tech companies. All companies and tech founders should institute expanded user control mechanisms and design privacy-preserving technologies from the outset in their products.
And finally, these tech companies should no longer be permitted to work directly with our adversaries such as the Chinese Communist Party.
Sovereign citizens of the United States do not exist solely to serve the economy or maximize gross domestic product. Despite their success in the stock market, Big Tech companies are actively eroding citizens’ ability to maintain a self-governing republic. Absent drastic measures to arrest the progress of this march toward totalitarianism with a tech face, we risk the welfare of a nation. It must end here.