Summary: The recent avalanche of censorship from Big Tech companies has been shocking. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media platforms silenced a sitting president. Apple, Amazon, and Google decided within a single weekend to eliminate Parler, a competing social media platform. Yet this should not have been a surprise, Big Tech censorship has been building for years. While Congress hasn’t had the stomach to address Big Tech censorship yet, rumblings are growing on both sides of the aisle about how to rein in these massive corporations.
The recent avalanche of censorship from Big Tech companies has been shocking.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and several other social media platforms silenced a sitting president. Apple, Amazon, and Google all decided—within a single weekend—to remove the up-and-coming social media platform Parler from their app stores and web server, rendering Parler unreachable for weeks.
More recently, YouTube, a product of Google, pulled a page out of the Chinese Communist Party’s playbook. It made a video featuring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and four doctors disappear, apparently because the conversation was “violating YouTube’s Community Guidelines” by discussing why Florida opposed lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. The video had 500,000 views until YouTube decided it should not exist.
These acts of censorship were unprecedented, but Americans shouldn’t have been surprised. The snowball that is Big Tech censorship has been rolling and getting larger for a long time. To understand how we got here, we need to understand how it started.
The Censorship Timeline
As private companies, entities like Facebook, Alphabet, Twitter, Apple, and Amazon are free to censor anyone they choose. Unlike the government, private companies are not beholden to the First Amendment, and they can limit the speech of their customers.
Censorship online started with small steps that nearly everyone supported—and encouraged. In 2014, Twitter and Facebook both began suspending accounts tied to ISIS terrorists. The terrorists were using these accounts to recruit vulnerable Americans to carry out violent acts. The content was indefensible, and social media platforms were praised for removing thousands of accounts used by extremists.
As Big Tech companies grew, the line at which content was considered indefensible began to blur. Facebook and Twitter moved beyond censuring ISIS terrorists to censoring conspiracy theorists and provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopolous and Alex Jones. It became clear that Big Tech companies were interested in more than stopping violence; they wanted to stop ideas.
Soon, the social media censorship bar dropped much lower. Twitter permanently suspended Canadian journalist Meghan Murphy for tweeting “men aren’t women.” Actor James Woods was suspended for joking that Democrats did not want white men to vote.
Prominent politicians began getting caught in the censorship net. Twitter removed an advertisement from Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) because she stated her opposition to Planned Parenthood while Facebook blocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) from posting an advertisement calling for Big Tech companies to be broken up. Google blocked campaign advertisements from Democratic presidential contender Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) during a debate in which she was the most-searched primary candidate.
Along the way, Big Tech suppressed several accounts only to later claim the censorship was an internal mistake. Twitter suspended conservative commentator Candace Owens for quoting a tweet a New York Times columnist wrote about white people. Facebook declared parts of the Declaration of Independence to be “hate speech.” A “rogue” Twitter employee temporarily suspended President Donald Trump’s account. Republican lawmakers began to question why most of Big Tech’s “mistakes” seemed to harm only conservatives.
While these bans played out before the public, internal leaks and investigative reports began to reveal more censorship behind the scenes. A whistleblower leaked an internal meeting at Google revealing that the company was working to censor content in its search algorithm. Google fired engineer James Damore for suggesting that the hiring disparity between male and female engineers was not a result of sexism. Twitter, meanwhile, was found to be “shadow banning” conservative accounts. Shadow banning is the process of suppressing a user’s content without notifying the user. The user believes the content has been posted as usual, but followers cannot see the content and the content is blocked from appearing in search results on the website.
The Big Tech companies were making the censorship decisions, but outside corporations have influenced and continue to influence some of the censorship. In 2017, YouTube suffered an “Adpocalypse“ after several corporate advertisers, including Coca-Cola and Amazon, pulled advertisements from the platform and refused to return until they could be sure their advertisements would not appear before videos that contained “hate speech.”
YouTube responded by purging thousands of videos and starting the process of “demonetizing” videos with controversial content. When a video is demonetized, it runs without an advertisement, preventing the video’s creator from earning revenue from the video on YouTube. Demonetization became a tool for YouTube to punish users who posted controversial content. YouTube has demonetized and suppressed conservative creators PragerU and Stephen Crowder.
All these steps laid the groundwork for the onslaught of Big Tech censorship that followed the 2020 election and the Capitol riots on January 6.
Election Fallout Sends Big Tech’s Censorship into Overdrive
Before the election on November 3, Big Tech firms were already scheming how to respond if anything they considered to be misinformation began to spread about the election or election results.
Americans got a preview of the censorship plans after the New York Post published a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. Facebook suppressed the story, and Twitter blocked users from sharing it on Twitter. And Twitter shut down New York Post‘s Twitter account for weeks. Both tech companies claimed the story was Russian disinformation, but the investigation into Hunter Biden and the legitimacy of the laptop were both confirmed in the following weeks.
As it became clear Joe Biden won the 2020 election, Twitter and Facebook became bolder with their censorship of President Trump. Every tweet he posted highlighting his concerns about the election was flagged as untrue, and users were required to read the warning before viewing the tweet.
While Twitter and Facebook maintained that they would not censor a sitting president throughout Trump’s presidency, the riots at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 gave them the greenlight they were seeking. On the evening of January 6, Twitter temporarily suspended Trump’s account. On January 8, Twitter announced that the suspension would be permanent. Facebook quickly followed suit, as did YouTube, Snapchat, Twitch, Shopify, and Reddit.
Having just watched the censorship of a sitting president, millions of Americans turned to Parler. They downloaded the app in search of an alternative platform. Parler, similar in format to Twitter, quickly became the number one app in the world, setting the stage for an extreme and unprecedented instance of Big Tech censorship.
In the next installment, Big Tech tries to cancel Parler.