Another week, another row about BBC impartiality, a regular event has that become almost as much a national institution as the Beeb itself. But amid the interminable culture wars now fought over media bias it is crucial that we do not miss an even bigger story — involving the far more powerful tech giants.
BBC bias stories drive many people wild because it is a taxpayer-funded organisation, and also because we have a long-held reverence towards what people used to call ‘Auntie’. But in the long run, the issue of fairness and freedom in news-reporting and opinion-forming is going to focus far more around information giants such as Google and Facebook than it is for the national broadcaster, its best days already behind it.
Viewing figures for Newsnight — to pluck an example at random — are currently at under 300,000. In contrast an endless number of podcasts and online-only content providers get far larger viewing figures; Joe Rogan gets 6 million downloads a day. So while Emily Maitlis’s monologues are of great concern to small clusters of people in Britain, the overall impact is limited; Google and Facebook, in contrast, have the sort of power media barons of the newspaper age could only dream of.
And just as the tech platforms have allowed a great flowering of online debate, discussion and information-sharing, so the power of these companies to shut off that debate, by de-platforming or muting content they do not approve of, is an issue which becomes more troubling by the month.
The issue recently hit particularly close to home. Earlier this month, an UnHerd interview with respected oncologist Professor Karol Sikora was, bizarrely, taken down by YouTube. According to the tech giant’s website, the interview was found to have ‘violated guidelines’ because the high-profile immunity specialist was critical of the lockdown policy (which, he believes, may end up killing many people due to missed cancer screenings).
YouTube has said in the past that it would delete any videos critical of WHO coronavirus guidance, the same World Health Organisation that has been heavily criticised for its links to the People’s Republic of China, (and its lack of links to the Republic of China).
But this in itself is not a simple public safety issue, because there is still much expert disagreement about how to fight the coronavirus pandemic; WHO, for example, has advised against mask-wearing in public, while some governments and states encourage or even enforce it.
After a certain amount of press attention, YouTube allowed the interview to go back online — which is entirely normal YouTube policy.
For years, the company has been hiding or removing content it didn’t approve of, and whenever public attention was brought to the matter YouTube would simply blame error or oversight. What it looks like, more often than not, is that the site acts as censor up until the moment that it is caught, at which point it’s one of those unfortunate errors again. If the unexplained disappearance of bad thinkers on the platform is not noticed, the error mysteriously remains in place.
Similar censorship happens at an astonishingly micro level. Just this week YouTube was accused of automatically removing below-the-line comments critical of the Chinese Communist Party. According to The Verge, statements containing certain words critical of the Chinese government have been regularly deleted from YouTube since at least October last year; statements that include ‘communist bandit’, for instance, have been being automatically erased in around 15 seconds.
When this was brought to YouTube’s attention, with all the attendant publicity and embarrassment, the company once again claimed that this censorship had been happening in error and that they were working on fixing the issue. Those damn gremlins in the machine, once again.
The problem for YouTube and other platforms is that over the last decade the goodwill that users initially had for these dynamic young tech start-ups has perceptibly faded, for a number of reasons. Some of the most high-profile include the revelations about Facebook data-harvesting and Google’s extraordinary desire to be seen to stand up to all governments apart from the authoritarian ones.
But equally significant is simply the growing number of individuals with their own experience of the tech platforms instituting forms of censorship, censorship which the companies first deny and then implement.
Twitter is perhaps the most pernicious case in point. For years, users of the addictive social media site — myself included — have noticed strange patterns on the platform. Certain tweets, or tweets containing particular words or relating to certain themes, would land as though into a great silence. They would go out and be liked by tiny numbers of people or none at all; or there would be nothing and then a sudden surge, as though in acknowledgement that the zero figure was unsustainable. Or people would find that the ‘likes’ for a particular tweet did not only remain static but would suddenly go down, as though Twitter had decided that a particular tweet needed to look less popular than it was.
I have experienced a certain amount of this myself, with readers regularly having to ‘re-like’ tweets promoting certain of my books. They had liked it, and Twitter had mysteriously ‘unliked’ it for them and they had then had to come back again to say that, no, they really did like it. I don’t think it is paranoia to observe that these shenanigans have a particular political bent.
It is well known that Silicon Valley is perhaps the most liberal (in the American sense of the term) place in the world. The people who work at the tech companies are almost uniformly left-leaning progressives, if not something stronger, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has admitted in the past that the corporation’s few conservatives don’t feel safe to voice their opinion. Similarly a former Facebook employee has accused the site of ‘curating’ feeds to screen out conservative content.
At the higher end, these companies have strong links with progressive politics on both sides of the Atlantic. The flood of former officials from the Obama administration into Silicon Valley after he left office, and Hillary Clinton failed to reach the White House in 2016, is well recorded. In recent times there has been a certain British flavour added to this, with reports that since Nick Clegg joined the top ranks of Facebook, that company has seen a marked influx of otherwise unemployed, perhaps otherwise unemployable, Liberal Democrats, swelling the ranks.
All of this and much more means that the tech companies swim in a bubble within a bubble. Their awareness of where the political or moral centre skews consistently left. When they do manage to take down terrorist material from their platforms, for instance, they placate the criticism they expect by stressing that they are opposed to ‘extremism’ in general; or ‘hateful content’, to give just one of the fabulously flatulent terms currently in vogue.
It is the reason why Twitter and all the other platforms acted so swiftly against Milo Yiannopoulos even as Dorsey’s site continued to allow Lashkar-e-Taiba (which carried out the Mumbai massacre in 2008) to keep active Twitter accounts.
It is the same with YouTube, which even before you get to the issue of banning has the subtle art of ‘demonetisation’, by which the media giant signals whom it favours and whom it does not. For years it has become clear that conservative-leaning content in particular is having its ability to monetise (that is, make money from advertising revenue raised by views) removed because the site disapproves of the politics.
Regrettably, again, I find myself to have been on the receiving end of a fair amount of this, as has almost everybody I know who has questioned not just regular political orthodoxies, but specific Silicon Valley orthodoxies, such as anything to do with trans issues.
The kicker in all of this is that as the various platforms are caught out in various forms of censorship, their final move is to confirm in their terms of service that they are allowed to do the things that, up till that point, they denied doing. So having spent years denying that they engaged in ‘shadow-banning’, in January the new terms of service agreement that all Twitter users were requested to agree to included having the right to refuse to distribute certain content and to “limit distribution or visibility of any Content on the service”. Otherwise known as shadow-banning.
Now that much of this is out in the open, perhaps it is inevitable that there is a surge in people volunteering to make themselves the arbiters of what is and is not acceptable material to publish online. In recent weeks there have once again been calls to either ban Donald Trump from Twitter or insist that his tweets are in some way fact-checked into irrelevancy by the company. Well, good luck to anybody auditioning for that job.
The debate around this political curating, as with the scandal over these companies’ China policies, returns us to the simultaneous recognition of two deeply troubling facts: that the social media companies have an awesome responsibility, greater than perhaps any comparable information-wielding power in history; and that this is a power that the platforms in question are utterly unfit to wield.
BBC rows will come and go. But the inadequacies and malignancies of the social media platforms are here to stay.