Every time you turn around, it seems that Republicans in Congress are holding another hearing on the supposed censorship of (or bias against) conservatives by big tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter. And lawsuits. Lordy, the “conservatives” who have been known to bemoan what a litigious society America has become will sue at the drop of a tin hat whenever they have a chance to advance their persecution complex and raise a few bucks from their base in the process.
In August, PragerU took Google to court (again) for restricting some of its videos on YouTube, thereby conclusively proving, in Prager’s eyes, “censorship of conservatives”. This is, Dennis Prager assures us with his typical combination of hyperbole and self-aggrandizing theatre, “THE single largest threat against free speech today.” Good grief. And not wishing to pass up an opportunity to outdo himself, he even goes full reductio ad Hitlerum:
I promise you, one day you will say, first they came after conservatives, and I said nothing, And then they came after me—and there was no one left to speak up for me.
Did we mention that one of his videos bemoans that comparisons to Nazis diminish the genuine horror over what actual Nazis did?
The layers of irony and hypocrisy are too thick to slice through with a guillotine. For starters, PragerU has more than 2.2 million subscribers and receives over a billion views a year. And wherever you turn online, it’s constantly popping up in your face — the only reason I became so aware of its extensive reach is that it kept cluttering up my Facebook feed, quite uninvited. This is censorship??? I’ll take a dozen orders of censorship on the side, please.
Second, PragerU claims to be a proponent of free market capitalism, and indeed constantly wails about the evils of socialism and “big government”; yet when it stands to profit, it has absolutely no problem with urging the government to dictate how an independent business operates. One of its popular videos even ridicules a lawsuit against a baker who discriminated against gays, offering the admonition that if a baker won’t bake your cake, just “find another baker”. But that advice is only for other people; Prager himself would rather sue someone’s ass than bother to look for another baker.
And by the way, PragerU itself practices censorship on its social media platforms — real censorship. Which is to say, if you chime in with too much fact checking, they’ll block you, and even remove all of the comments you’ve made in the past. In contrast, YouTube doesn’t censor any Prager videos; it just places about 10 to 20 percent of them in restricted mode, which is something that is not imposed on viewers but requested by a paltry 1.5 percent of them, so they can decide whether their children should have access to this content. Some YouTube material might be objectionable to some people on the grounds of profanity, sexual innuendo, violence, etc. Which means this filtering option is the kind of service most likely to be requested by conservatives; and yet Prager, who professes to be a champion of conservatives, is trying to take it away.
At the heart of this lawsuit is the contention that since YouTube packages itself as a public forum of sorts, then it ought to be governed by the rigorous First Amendment demands placed on forums ostensibly owned by the public — e.g., city parks, libraries, schools, town halls, etc. Evidently, Dennis Prager can’t quite wrap his head around the notion that the term “public forum” can be used with a bit of license — after all, that would be like, say, a shady outfit operating out of rented mailbox billing itself as a “university”, wouldn’t it?
But brushing aside such truckloads of irony and hypocrisy, is there any truth to his claim? Are “conservatives” being “censored” online? It would be surprising if it didn’t happen occasionally — depending on how you define “conservative” and how you define “censorship”. (And these “conservatives” define the latter as any hindrance to their getting their way 200 percent.) It would also be surprising if many “liberals” weren’t “censored”. Social media platforms are “censoring” everyone.
But the question is, are they being “censored” simply because they are “conservative”. No, actually the question is whether they are being systematically and habitually “censored”. Is there, as they insist on believing, a vast left-wing conspiracy to suppress “conservative” “thought” online? If so, it has to be just about the most inept and ineffective conspiracy ever.
Concerning Facebook, for example, NBC reports that:
There are more than three times as many conservative publishers than liberal publishers on Facebook, and they receive more than 2.5 times the engagement on the social media platform than those who push opposing viewpoints.
Please, please, give us all more of this kind of censorship.
Facebook is a fertile breeding ground for fake news — real fake news, not the “fake news” your Dear Leader vilifies because he doesn’t like the way it criticizes him. And fake news is more likely to be shared by conservatives. This can, and does, have devastating consequences. In a stunning, required viewing TED talk, Welsh journalist Carole Cadwalladr relates her investigation into how a well-coordinated campaign of right-wing disinformation (formerly known as fake news before the term was co-opted) via Facebook swung the results of the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election of 2016.
And there has been no accountability for it; Zuckerberg and company refuse to cooperate with her efforts to clean up the mess and salvage the remaining traces of democracy. To be perfectly clear, Cadwalladr uncovered evidence that serious crimes were committed. But despite repeated requests from European Parliament, Zuckerberg has refused to divulge any information about how the criminals operated on his forum. Yet he did go to Washington to testify before Congress in yet another hearing about supposed Facebook bias against conservatives, triggered by a complaint by Fox token sock puppets Diamond and Silk — a claim that was totally fraudulent.
What Facebook has done is secure the services of purported fact checkers that include the right-wing Weekly Standard as well as Check Your Fact, an offshoot of Daily Caller — a rabidly right-wing website founded by white supremacist Fox foghorn Tucker Carlson that, like its founder, has been known to promote white nationalism and anti-science, among other things. There are zero left-leaning sites in the review panel Zuckerberg has assembled. In short, don’t expect accuracy and balance on Facebook anytime soon; instead, you can look forward to more kowtowing to right-wing demands.
One striking example occurred after anti-abortion propagandist Lila Rose, who has a long history of dishonest claims, posted a Facebook video that included the false statement that abortion is never medically necessary. After medical experts attached a fact check to the video, several Republicans complained, and Facebook removed the fact check. (Lila Rose also protested on the grounds that the fact checkers were “abortionists” — apparently she’s convinced that their having actually worked in the field made them less qualified than she to speak on medical matters.) This, unlike all the PragerU nonsense, is real censorship. And unlike all the PragerU nonsense, it’s censorship of very important facts — information debunking dangerous medical disinformation. Yet somehow it has largely flown under the radar of the media outrage cycle over online censorship. Right-wingers, however, have been piping up about it: they’re spinning it as yet another example of big tech targeting “conservatives”. I am not making this up.
What about Twitter? It does ban a fair number of right-wingers, but there happens to be good reason for that: it has at least a passing interest in trying to stop Nazis and other white nationalists and hate mongers from spreading hateful and violent rhetoric, which can inspire acts of hate and violence in the real world. Even so, Twitter gives these dangerous extremists a great deal of leeway, because algorithms to weed them out would also weed out many Republicans who are somewhat less toxic.
In an attempt to establish that Twitter discriminates against conservatives, a “researcher” at Columbia University conducted a mockery of a study in which he cherry-picked a mere 22 Twitter accounts that had been banned. Of these, only one was a supporter of Hillary Clinton, while the other 21 supported her Republican opponent. Voila! Unmistakable extreme bias, right?
Oops. Taking a closer look at the list of banned accounts, we see that one of them is the American Nazi Party — yes, the frigging American Nazi Party, for heaven’s sake; and most of the others are nearly as extreme. As Zach Graves notes at Techdirt:
Reasons listed for banning these individuals in [the study’s] own data sheet include “violent threats,” “harassment,” “inciting violence,” “targeted abuse,” “doxxing,” “pro-Nazi tweets,” and “racist slurs.” Additionally, about a quarter of the accounts listed are still active and no longer suspended.
Kicking off a bunch of Nazis and trolls isn’t very compelling evidence that your average conservative is getting unfair treatment on Twitter.
And, as he mentions, many of the accounts that are suspended get reinstated. And hate mongers whose Twitter accounts do get suspended often just use another account.
But let’s get back to Google and its vast video library known as YouTube. There’s really just one little fact you need to know in order to demolish the claim that YouTube picks on “conservatives”: left-leaning videos get filtered more often. Far more often, as discussed in Reason. (The 12 percent given here for Pragerists is somewhat less than their own claim of 20, but even if we give them the benefit of a doubt, they still score well below other contenders in the Censorship Derby.)
The Young Turks, a left-wing counterpart to some of the links championed by PragerU, gets restricted a whopping 71 percent of the time! Dennis Prager, when confronted about this discrepancy, just responded that many videos on the left actually deserve to be censored because… wait for it… they contain profanity. Whereas his own videos, since they don’t contain any profanity, don’t deserve to be “censored”. What they do contain, however, is a great deal of bigotry and disinformation, with ample servings of hatred toward academics, transgenders, the (non right-wing) media, Democrats, Muslims and above all “the left” — which includes anyone Prager wants it to. Many right-wing sites blatantly promote white supremacy and violence. Yet all of this, Prager wants you to believe, is less obscene than four-letter words. And it appears that Google just might agree.
Prager tries to buttress his case with the aid of a “whistle blower”, a disgruntled former Google employee with an ax to grind who leaked a list of blacklisted “news” sites (as Prager brands them), after a Google representative testified that Google doesn’t have blacklists. But to quote Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke, “what we have here is a failure to communicate”. Specifically, we have Prager calling something a blacklist that Google does not.
What Google does is flag and quarantine websites that appear to be infected, until such time as the problem is resolved. About 10,000 of them a day. Are we to believe that all of them are “conservative news sites”? All of this has been public knowledge for years. Yet Prager’s “blacklist” breathlessly promoted by discredited would-be muckraker with a criminal record James O’Keeffe, is being brandished as a major new revelation and a smoking gun.
Here’s a sample from the leaked files, posted on a right-wing website calling itself Reclaim The Net:
Certainly, there are many right-wing sites on that list. (Some of them quite inflammatory, for what it’s worth.) But here’s the thing: it’s also evident, even from this one little slice, that many left-leaning sites also get “blacklisted”. Over in the right-hand column alone, you can easily spot Right Wing Watch, Media Matters, The Proud Liberal and Queerty. How is the supposed “blacklisting” of sites like these supposed to prove that “conservatives” are being singled out?
Mostly, Prager tries to build his case by cherry picking isolated incidents. One of the videos in question begins with the words “rape, murder, war”. It’s understandable that Google’s algorithms might cause the red lights to flash after a trigger like that. After Google reviewed the video, however, the filtering on it was rescinded, as it turned out to be arguably more benign than those ominous opening words might indicate. (The video was still intellectually dishonest and denigrating, but hey.)
Prager’s absolute favorite instance, however, the one he keeps hammering into the ground over and over, is a little homily that he himself delivered on the topic of the so-called Ten Commandments. It also contained the word “murder”, so it also was restricted initially before it was reviewed. This, Prager arrogantly insists, could have happened only because he is “conservative”. He brought it up testifying before Congress, and suggested that maybe he could keep Google happy by editing the video and rebranding it as The Nine Commandments. Nyuk nyuk nyuk. One of the most laughable things about his claim here is his premise that discussing the so-called Ten Commandments automatically makes a presenter “conservative”. Few people would characterize the present blog as conservative, yet we’ve featured a discussion of the so-called Ten Commandments on its pages.
Trying to cover all the bases, right-wingers have also insisted that Google’s search engine elves have it in for them. (They’ve even made hay of a bogus study claiming that Google “manipulated votes” in favor of Hillary Clinton.) One prong of this attack is the claim that search results tend to produce more pages from left-leaning sources than from right-leaning sources. And guess what? For once, they actually have a valid point. Well, almost. It’s true that more left-leaning sites are displayed, but that’s not because they’re left-leaning; it’s because they’re more accurate and reliable. Right-wingers could easily change all of this by just cleaning up their act. Instead, they’d rather bitch and moan and try to game the system.
The other prong of the attack is the narrative that when right-wing sites do pop up on Google, they are often larded with negative suggestions. And again, rather than stoop to any soul-searching as to whether their actions might merit such a response, they take the road blazed by their “president” and assume that the real world must be nefariously stacking the deck against them. Here’s another bit of idiocy posted by PragerU:
You’d think that with Prager’s millions and all the people he has working for him, someone would be tech savvy enough to point out to him that the browser was just completing the train of thought from clues left behind by previous users. (And given the negative nature of these results, you have to wonder if Prager doesn’t have some turncoats on the premises.) In any case, we turn again to Reason, in an article called “PragerU Does Not Understand Censorship (or How to Use Google)” for a counterexample produced with a freshly scrubbed browser:
As you can see, the most appropriate suggestion got bumped down to eighth on the list.
In one of the endless series of Congressional hearings, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) lamented how Google search results were casting him in a negative light. King, lest we forget, has made comments so bigoted that he’s even been criticized and penalized by today’s wildly bigoted GOP. Yet he is astounded and indignant that Google doesn’t do more to put lipstick on his pig. Indeed, King insisted that because Google is headquartered in librul California, its employees must be deliberately manipulating the algorithms to give him bad press.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) did his best to inject a modicum of sanity into the proceedings. He displayed the results of a search on Steve King, which were indeed rather unflattering. He also displayed another search on Steve Scalise (as he noted, he just changed one word), and the results were quite favorable. That’s because Scalise is a much more decent fellow (even if he has jumped on the bandwagon trying to paint Ilhan Omar as anti-Semitic). Lieu deftly chastised his GOP colleagues thus:
I’m going to conclude here by stating the obvious: if you want positive search results, do positive things; if you don’t want negative search results, don’t do negative things. And to some of my colleagues across the aisle, if you’re getting bad press articles and bad search results, don’t blame Google, or Facebook, or Twitter. Consider blaming yourself.
But blaming themselves is something that many “conservatives” seem utterly incapable of doing. It just isn’t in their wiring.
In fine, right-wing extremists enjoy a marked advantage on online platforms. A huge advantage. And yet they are constantly complaining about how they are being censored, banned, marginalized and discriminated against. There are three possibilities here: (1) a great many “conservatives” are appallingly ignorant about how the Internet works, even though it keeps getting explained to them over and over; (2) a great many “conservatives” are stricken with paranoia and maybe even a touch of schizophrenia; (3) a great many “conservatives” are manipulative, and are deliberately trying to tilt the playing field in their direction even more than it already is.
Most likely, it’s a combination of the three. The third possibility, in particular, seems quite probable. Wingers have spent decades assiduously working the refs with their narrative of “liberal bias” in an effort (highly successful, by the way) to compel the media to bend over backward for them. Why would you expect them to behave any differently with social media? And why would you expect them to care about the dangerous side effects of their endeavor — that, for example, by nudging media platforms to take sides, they may actually bring about more “censorship”? They don’t care, because they’re getting their way. They’re getting a great deal of media attention. They’re getting the ear of the army of clueless Republicans in Congress. And the supremely impressionable White House Occupant, who is threatening to go nuclear on their behalf. And oh yes, not that they’d really care or anything, but their supporters are getting really riled up and loosening up the purse strings.
The question one has to ask is, how much power and influence and dominance will be enough for them? Will they ever, ever, ever be satisfied?