Relaxing their grip:
A few days ago, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted that Twitter under his leadership had “made a bunch of mistakes” with respect to moderation decisions relating to the 2020 election, “especially around the New York Post and the Hunter Biden laptop story.”
This was just weeks after YouTube announced “an update” to their “approach to US election misinformation,” declaring they will “stop removing content that advances false claims that widespread fraud, errors or glitches occurred in the 2020 and other past US Presidential elections.” Doing so, they explained, “could … have the unintended effect of curtailing political speech without meaningfully reducing the risk of violence or other real-world harm.”
This pullback by American social media censors obviously shouldn’t be exaggerated; we’re not embarking upon a new era of expressive freedom. Yet it corresponds with related developments elsewhere, for example in the repeated leadership shake-ups at the American news broadcaster CNN, which arise from efforts to moderate overtly partisan coverage there; and in this vague essay in which New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger calls for more “journalistic independence” and less reporting “guided by political objectives.” (In a follow-up interview with The New Yorker, he explained that “what I’m pushing back against is certitude … journalists going into stories knowing the story they want to tell and knowing the outcome they want to drive toward.”) …
The likely explanation is not so cheerful:
All Western countries have a twofold political discourse, bifurcated into what I’d call formal and informal spheres. The formal sphere consists of the major press and broadcast media, where content is heavily influenced by corporate advertising; and of the establishment political parties and their politicians. This sphere is an arena for staged debates, for the performance of acceptable opinion and for the forging of broad political consensus on all matters which the establishment considers important. The formal sphere still makes sporadic efforts to cast itself as the whole discourse, but especially since the rise of the internet it’s hard to deny the existence of a vast informal discourse, sustained largely on social media, in smaller independent press venues and by outside political candidates. …
Before 2016, the American informal sphere was largely unmoderated, apparently because the establishment considered it politically unimportant. After the populist backlash of that crucial year, social media became the object of unusual fear and scrutiny, while steps were taken behind the scenes to neuter its political influence. …
Former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024, has been indicted twice, most recently by a federal grand jury for 37 counts relating to mishandling classified documents, and in March by the Manhattan district attorney on 34 counts of falsifying business records. Whatever the merit of these charges or Trump’s prospects of defeating them, I suspect there’s a growing confidence within the political establishment that Trump’s re-election has been successfully forestalled. Elites no longer perceive the speech of common people as the overt threat it used to be, and once again less anxiety attaches to informal, populist political opinion.
The new era:
The advance fortification of the 2024 election also has implications for formal political discourse in America. The major press and broadcast media appear eager to abandon overtly politicised coverage and re-establish some veneer (however unconvincing) of objectivity. This means, among other things, that the boundaries of formal discourse will be have to be more carefully policed.
Tucker Carlson, who served as a crucial juncture between the two spheres and brought many arguments from informal into formal discourse, has been removed, all the better to seal the one arena off from the other and limit the range of ideas and arguments at play in mainstream American politics.
In sum, we’re seeing the consolidation of what elites hope will be the new, post-Trump American political and media system — one which will be more firmly controlled and robust to populist interference.
Social media censorship is obviously very bad, but it’s also a sign that what you’re saying has some hope of making a difference. If this new order functions as elites hope it will, the paradoxical signal may be a declining interest in censoring internet speech, at least in the United States.
They don’t care what we say now? Does that mean Google will stop down-ranking this website into near invisibility?
Don’t be ridiculous. That’s one of the reasons they don’t care what we say.