Controversies surrounding online fake news, having alarmed political activists in Britain and the US, are prompting social media companies to be more active in combating the alleged threat. For many people in opposition to the policies of US President Donald Trump and Britain’s exit from the EU, the internet is to blame for the situation because it illicitly influenced voters. As a result, increased policing of social networks to root out foreign spies and domestic dissidents seems necessary to them. One of the latest examples is Twitter’s permanent suspension of American conspiracy theorist entertainer Alex Jones.
The responsibility to police the social networks seems to have largely been placed, by pushy and concerned politicians, on the management of tech companies themselves. British MPs and US senators did this by summoning them to hearings and campaigning openly against the internet’s permissiveness on political content, making demands they should shut down dissident and foreign outlets because they have gone too far.
Although the most vocal of them are not actually in the incumbent government and therefore not responsible for national security responses, they are still lawmakers representing constituents and can threaten legislation to compel social media companies to change. Preferring instead to make the policing of social media posts look voluntary, they seem to have capably persuaded the management of the tech companies to enforce their views on national security.
Therefore, now, we are at an awkward point where transnational social networks must care about so-called national security – specifically the US’s national security, based on that country’s strange and self-obsessed drivel about being exceptional and better than others. What next?
Recently, we have seen police-like enforcement action against dissident users and outlets present on a variety of social media platforms and applications used by a probable majority of people in the UK and the US. This removal of controversial figures from online platforms is presented as not being censorship, but rather the enforcement of decent community guidelines by companies that have every right to withhold services. However, this argument is not very convincing. The political pressure has been immense. The results have not been targeted at bad social media behavior like spam and harassment, but against alternate political views on both the left and the right. If we look at the actions of the tech companies, they are not only encouraged by elements of the state but have made themselves into state-like actors by describing themselves as stopping foreign threats and extremism.
Brexit was the mistake of a misled public, perhaps. We are told so by influential media personalities – almost all of them – and the same narrative is presented when it comes to the election of Trump. We are encouraged to lean towards the same common solution to both of these mishaps, and it consists of mostly a crackdown online – especially on Twitter. We will be shutting down online accounts and channels belonging to the supporters of such causes as Trump and Brexit, after quickly and conveniently finding them guilty of being bots or possibly foreign. No attention is given to bad behavior as a whole.
For example, no enforcement action is used against pro-EU accounts or anti-Trump accounts, many of which self-identify as foreign or completely automated. Some even blatantly violate Twitter’s rules on inflated hashtag campaigns, doing things like using the hashtag #FBPE to get followers and retweets from pro-EU bots. Their own determination to trick users and violate the community guidelines is openly celebrated by them, so oblivious are these kinds of activists to their own hypocrisy.
So, in fact, what seems at first a principled argument against bad behavior is really a cliché so we can pretend there was some civilized reason for thuggishly silencing other points of view.
Much of the commentary by the Democratic Party, as with opponents of Brexit in the UK, focuses on national security and the need to silence or eliminate bad people and Russians. It is presented as war, using the language of military propaganda. Being in opposition, these democracy-loving people in the Democratic Party and other groups now presume it is the job of civil society – news networks like CNN and tech companies like Apple mainly – to not only take charge of national security themselves but also engage directly in censorship.
But censorship, the shutting down of opposing views and channels on grounds that they are treasonous, is not an exertion of soft power but hard power. It is a state-like activity, and the sole responsibility of states in all previous cases. By taking part in censorship without being part of the elected leadership of the state and the command structure it possesses to deal with national security threats, unelected elements in civil society are allowed to commit what would be a crime if they had been elected to do it. They engage in a coup-like activity, since, not being part of an elected government, they are nonetheless engaged in state-like activity and are trying to invasively police matters that only a heavily expanded state or dictatorship is ever expected to police.
What is presented above makes it justifiable to consider whether traditional models of state censorship would be more consistent with the rule of law and the importance of a democratic mandate than the current capricious enforcement by private companies. A party whose candidate failed to win power over the whole state, such as the Democrats, is not able to implement a program of state censorship at the moment they most want to. The reason this is the case is because of their very loss in the 2016 US election, which makes them not responsible for matters of national security and not tasked with securing the information space against threats, and yet they try. For them to seek routes around this failure, going to non-elected entities such as the tech companies in an attempt to dictate terms of censorship and actual national security policies via them, can be compared with a coup or a form of separatism. This is the creation of a second state, the seizure of infrastructure to interdict citizens. It is completely outside the bounds of normal political processes, which focus solely on democratic and valid elections as the only means of changing power.
Each point made in relation to the US Democrats here is equally true of influencers and leaders who seek to invalidate the results of the UK’s Brexit referendum, in large part because these are the same kind of civil society actors. In their attempts to portray the activity of the national government itself as treasonous and wrest control of the management of national security from the British government, entities with no democratic mandate are hopelessly creating a second state – one without elections – to take control over national security.
It is not political opposition but a second state because, for the first time ever, it wants not just persuasive soft power but hard power in the capability to suppress targets or eliminate their influence on command. Not only would this realization make these parties and their tech industry collaborators a state-like entity, but it could make such actors as the Democratic Party traitors at war with the electorate.
While this article doesn’t make such a claim, it is one Trump and his supporters have come close to making when the President accused unrelenting elements of the press of being “enemies of the people”, and could eventually create a national security crisis. The reason it would be a crisis is because both Trump and his critics will have a point. It is the role of activists and media to be adversarial, but if they are too aggressive and specifically driven to remove an elected head of state from power, their actions may be seen as the de facto overthrow of the republic to install themselves as political arbiters and impose a moral aristocracy.
Many leaders and followers in the political opposition in the US and UK are supportive of censorship, slithering around constitutional safeguards against state censorship. Whether in public hearings or behind closed doors, they have been going directly to tech companies and other parts of civil society to physically disrupt or silence speech they dislike. If they are such supporters of national security and censorship, and are really so concerned about traitors, they should not conspire. Rather, these people should approach the elected government with their concerns, to avoid being deemed traitors themselves.
They can achieve censorship by working to convince the elected government to change the law in relation to such practices and introduce programs of lawful censorship, as well as bodies to reliably and authoritatively identify traitors. This means national security can be pursued in a way at least consistent with electoral democracy, even if it erodes human rights further. Otherwise, we will continue to see electorally defeated parties and elements of civil society acting like terrorist hijackers determined to take power. They will be gaining state-like powers, harassing citizens who did not vote for them, carrying out targeted censorship, and enforcing their values over the corpse of the democratic state.
It should be concluded that none of the above is a desirable conversation to take part in and it is regrettable that it would need to be published. Ideally, neither state censorship nor corporate censorship should be tolerated. The internet continue should be home to an anarchic culture at all costs, not a state-like one. However, as rhetoric becomes more warlike and paranoid and positions become irreconcilable, all spaces could become politically aligned and everyone’s freedom to communicate could catastrophically reduce. With constant political censorship, critical thinking will rewind a hundred years and the internet will talk like propaganda from 1914 when you try to search for the truth.
Harry Bentham is an independent author. His writing has been featured at Beliefnet, Press TV, the Center for a Stateless Society, h+ Magazine and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Having authored several titles available on Amazon, Harry wrote and independently published the technology and politics book Catalyst: A Techno-Liberation Thesis in 2013 and is a listed member of think tanks including the futurist Lifeboat Foundation. Keep track of Harry’s ideas via Twitter @hjbentham and @catalystthesis
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