Google just wants to silence dissent, what it may get is civil war

Yesterday, Dave Rubin, who hosts a popular talk show, announced on Twitter that Youtube, which is owned by Google, had more or less demonetized his entire catalogue.If you don’t know Rubin, he is a very mild classical liberal who endorsed Gary Johnson in 2016, hardly a neo-nazi or another kind of political extremist. But he is critical of the regressive left, which I guess is enough to make him persona non grata for the social justice warriors who have apparently taken control of Google.

This move comes after Youtube demonetized a video by Jared Taylor, a prominent white nationalist, which it even placed in a digital Gulag. Not only can Taylor not earn any money when the video is viewed through advertisements, but the video is now ignored by Youtube’s recommendation system and can’t be found through a search, making it very difficult to find it unless you already know it exists and have a link to it. It also cannot be liked or embedded into a webpage anymore. A lot of people were pretty happy when this happened, but it was predictable that Youtube wouldn’t stop with Taylor and would soon target more ordinary people. (Not, to be clear, that it was okay to shadow ban Taylor.) Before it demonetized Rubin, Youtube did the same thing to Ron Paul, but also Diamond and Silk, two black women who strongly support Trump. The fact that Rubin’s videos have been demonetized means that he can no longer earn money from advertisement, which he needs to cover his costs and run his talk show. Thus, it’s now clear that Youtube is trying to silence people whose views it doesn’t like by economically strangling them, plain and simple. By going after people like Rubin, whom it’s impossible to depict as extremists, it shows that it’s not even trying to hide it anymore.

This is exactly what people warned against when Google fired James Damore because he’d written a memo that challenged the orthodoxy about the underrepresentation of women in the company. At the time, a few prominent libertarians, who characteristically think dismissing basic common sense is a proof of intelligence, explained that anyone who worried about this was just a moron.

Now, Nowrasteh is right that he is confused, but not in the way he thinks… When someone pointed out that it might end badly, he responded in exactly the way you would expect a dogmatic libertarian to respond.

I guess nobody ever told Nowrasteh, who is so very smart, about monopoly power…

Incidentally, I doubt Nowrasteh would say that about companies who don’t want to serve black people because of their race, but I’m not sure he ever thought that far. You may think that it’s not the same thing, because people get to choose their ideology, whereas they can’t choose their race. I hear that all the time when people attempt to justify discrimination against conservatives in academia. But this is hardly obvious and, therefore, you’re putting yourself in a precarious situation if that’s how you attempt to justify this double standard. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that differences in political attitudes are to a large extent due to genes, which means there may be only a difference in degree with the case of race. Moreover, the fact that part of the difference in political attitudes can’t be explained by genetics doesn’t mean that people are free to chose them, since you don’t choose to be raised in e. g. a family of libertarians anymore than you choose your genome. It may not be Nowrasteh’s fault if he thinks there is nothing to see when Google fires someone for wrongthink. Perhaps he was just raised in a family of libertarians that made sure to erase any trace of common sense in him.

In general, libertarians tend to think that, as long as government is not involved in restricting speech, there is no problem. But, as every major liberal thinker understood, there is more to freedom of speech than protection from the state. Despite what many people think, because their knowledge of history is limited to the 20th century, government was usually not the greatest threat to freedom of speech. In fact, throughout history, the state often attempted to protect heretics and free thinkers from the mob. As Bertrand Russell pointed out in What is Democracy?, the mob is usually far more dangerous for freedom of speech:

The most difficult kind of liberty to preserve in a democracy is the kind which derives its importance from services to the community that are not very obvious to ignorant people. New intellectual work is almost always unpopular because it is subversive of deep-seated prejudices, and appears to the uneducated as wanton wickedness. Luther thought Copernicus a mere paradox monger who wished to be known for his eccentricity. Calvin took the same view, and so did the Catholic Church in the time of Galileo. Democracy would not have saved Galileo from persecution.

But, as a result of their pathological obsession with government, libertarians don’t understand that.

Moreover, although people tend to associate threats to freedom of speech to violence, violence is not necessary to protect the orthodoxy. In fact, as Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, uniformity of thought is probably more fully achieved by non-violent means:

If America has not as yet had any great writers, the reason is given in these facts; there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America. The Inquisition has never been able to prevent a vast number of anti-religious books from circulating in Spain. The empire of the majority succeeds much better in the United States, since it actually removes any wish to publish them. Unbelievers are to be met with in America, but there is no public organ of infidelity. Attempts have been made by some governments to protect morality by prohibiting licentious books. In the United States no one is punished for this sort of books, but no one is induced to write them; not because all the citizens are immaculate in conduct, but because the majority of the community is decent and orderly.

Despite the popularity of 1984-style dystopias, there is probably more to fear today from that kind of soft totalitarianism, than from a totalitarian state using violence to control people’s thoughts. One can be suspicious of government, as I am, while recognizing that.

Now, it’s true that if Google continues down this road and starts censoring anyone to the right of Elizabeth Warren, what is probably going to happen is that conservatives will just create their own platform to publish their content and earn money from it. I used not to take seriously talk of boycotting Google and building alternative platforms, but after seeing what happened to Rubin, I’m not so sure anymore. I’m sure libertarians of the Nowrasteh variety would say that, if such a thing comes to pass, it will only prove that Google’s censorship isn’t a problem and that we shouldn’t care if a private company decides it doesn’t want to do business with some people because of their ideology. The free market, they would add, really solves every problem. Except it doesn’t. That people like  Nowrasteh think it wouldn’t be a problem if conservatives ended up creating their own platform only shows how short-sighted this brand of libertarianism is, because it would actually be a disaster if things got to that point.

If conservatives ended up creating their own websites to publish their content, it would only increase polarization further, as conservatives and liberals won’t even use the same platforms anymore. And this could end really badly, because when society becomes structured as two hostile groups that don’t speak to each other anymore and only exchange invective, violence is the logical outcome. As I wrote in my review of Hugh Thomas’s book on the Spanish Civil War:

The breakdown of civility in Spain between 1931 and 1936 is ominously reminiscent of what has been taking place in the West recently. People would benefit from reading this book even if they are not particularly interested in the Spanish Civil War, for it would remind them that, when political disagreement is no longer seen as legitimate and one’s political opponents are constantly pathologized, it usually doesn’t end well.

As I wrote in the same review, this is a lesson that people on the left, such as Google’s social justice warriors, would be inspired to meditate, because the’re unlikely to win if there is a civil war. Of course, we’re not there yet, but that’s how things may end up if we’re not careful and Google’s ideologically motivated economic censorship doesn’t help.

8 thoughts

  1. There are maybe a few things individuals could do to start to undermine the internet monopolies, inadequate though these moves are to the scale of the problem. (1) Switch on societal grounds from the market leader to services provided by the number 2 or 3 firm, even though these are not quite as good. I’ve largely switched from Google to Microsoft’s Byng, which seems to have improved dramatically over the last few years, even if still not quite as good as Google. (2) Switch from the market leader’s supposedly ‘free’ services to paid services. I switched from Google’s ‘free’ bookmarking service – where they suck up yet another data set all about you – to a modestly priced pay service, which has more functionalities and promises to keep your information private. (3) Cut out time-wasting on, or, if possible, get altogether off social media.

    At a broader policy level, we should investigate and debate the case for much stronger anti-trust action and public regulation of the internet monopolies, never mind if libertarian heads explode. There has long been a good mainstream economics case for regulation of so-called natural monopolies like electricity and telecoms that benefit from increasing returns to scale and network economies, and we should explore this case against the dominant internet platforms. Regulation has its own problems, as we know, blah, blah, blah … but maybe just a strong threat to regulate will be enough to make Google and the rest of these bastards back off.

  2. The effects of the breakdown of civility in a democratic society are analyzed by Arturo Valenzuela (later to become assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs under Obama) in his excellent work,
    “The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Chile”, where he examines how increased polarization between the left and the right led to the 1973 Pinochet coup.

    However, the situation in the United States at present is nowhere near as polarized as that of Chile in the early 1970’s, where the left called for a Marxist-Leninist revolution and the right for a military dictatorship, the right being faster on the trigger and much much better armed. By 1973 there was no more “mainstream” in Chile.

    Obviously, the situation in the U.S. could deteriorate and end up as polarized as that of Spain or of Chile, but it’s simply alarmist to imagine that the U.S. is anywhere near there or that it will necessarily move in that direction.

    That being said, I agree that Google should allow as wide a political spectrum as possible to use their services.

  3. As someone sympathetic to libertarianism, I’m surprised at Nowrasteh’s response.* Yes, libertarians think that the market is a powerful force, but many libertarians think that social sanction is also a powerful force, and that it’s perfectly fine, sometimes even morally obligatory, to criticize private actors or firms for their conduct. It’s somewhat strange to me that he thinks that it’s weird for conservatives to criticize what Google does, just because they’re a private firm.

    That said, I agree with Mill on freedom of speech, so I think what Google did is very bad, not only for David Rubin, but for the rest of us who are deprived of hearing what he has to say, whether it’s true or false.

    *–For the record, I’ve never heard of Nowrasteh, so I’m not surprised because this is uncharacteristic of him.

  4. When I heard Dave Rubin talk about it on his show, he says that the YouTube people told him it was an accident, and that they’re working on fixing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if that person were lying, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if there are chain of command problems at YouTube, and that some people do mischief without actual authorization.

  5. https://digiday.com/media/advertisers-may-have-returned-to-youtube-but-creators-are-still-losing-out-on-revenue

    This article suggests it’s more widespread. There may be some political bias in there somewhere but it’s also compatible with them taking a tradeoff in favor of advertisers over content producers. Demonetizing anything remotely controversial solves the media and activist problem that led to the adpocalypse, whereas there is less media support for content creators and activists in favor of them aren’t in a position to affect the bottom line.

    Some of the suspicious demonetization could also be explained by technical problems with the underlying content analysis, supervised learning data sets, and limited processing power in the YouTube video pipeline, feeding into the political/economic reasons above.

    The article also makes it seem like they are giving special treatment to top creators to not be affected e.g. it’s not clear whether the Young Turks are facing the same issue today or are the beneficiary of a double standard (which may or may not have a political element to it) considering how silent they have been on the issue

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