by Freddie Sayers
Monday, 28
December 2020

Tech censorship: how paranoid should we be?

Freddie Sayers spoke to journalist and civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald, who gave an unsettling answer
by Freddie Sayers

Recently, in the comments underneath our LockdownTV YouTube videos, people have been saying that our videos are being ‘downrated’ on YouTube search. Type in Aella, or Michael Levitt, for example, and videos come above ours in the search results that are much older, viewed much fewer times, and come from channels that have much smaller followings. I hate the idea of being conspiracist, and feel it’s a bit rich to make accusations of censorship against a platform that has brought us so many views and followers, but could it be that heterodox channels like ours have found their way onto a blacklist of channels that should be ever so gently… suppressed?

This was one of the questions I put to Glenn Greenwald — one of the world’s better known free speech and civil liberties advocates. Talking from his home in the mountains outside Rio di Janeiro, his answer was unsettling: “You don’t need to be a conspiracist to believe any of that. They acknowledge that they are doing all the things that you just described.”

The pandemic has brought this issue to the fore even more visibly, with channels and videos regularly being taken down having been judged as dangerous to public health, and the YouTube CEO announcing earlier in the year that anything that fell foul of WHO guidelines would be removed (notwithstanding that organisation’s patchy, to say the least, record during this pandemic).

“It’s incredibly dangerous,” says Greenwald. “What competency do tech giants have to arbitrate over science and health policy? … How did they get into a position of some sort of philosopher-king to be able to sit in judgement as overlords of our discourse and decree not only what is permissible but what is true and false when it comes to highly complex questions such as how to manage a pandemic, or whether vaccines are safe and effective, or whether the balances of a lockdown are justified by their cost? These are incredibly complicated decisions that a society ought to be debating.”

It becomes even more concerning when it dovetails with party politics. Greenwald sees the merger of the Democratic Party and the tech platforms as a serious threat to free speech:

You can look at every metric and it all leads to the same conclusion. There is a union that includes the establishment wing of the Democratic Party, Wall Street and Silicon Valley. One way you can see that is that Silicon Valley overwhelmingly poured its money into the campaign coffers of the Democratic Party… Their employees are overwhelmingly progressive, overwhelmingly liberal, overwhelmingly Democrat and whenever there is agitation within these companies for greater censorship, it is almost always on the grounds that Right-wing or conservative voices ought to be censored.

To me, that censorship episode involving the Hunter Biden reporting in the weeks leading up to an election was one of the most alarming and significant events to take place in politics in years. That one of the primary means that citizens have to communicate with one another was simply manipulated to prevent incriminating reporting about the candidate that the employees and executives and shareholders of those means of communication wanted to win the election. It was pure brute censorship of the most toxic and damaging kind.

- Glenn Greenwald, LockdownTV

The prognosis, according to Greenwald, is not good. Instead of being magnanimous in victory, he predicts that the Democrats are likely to use their influence to further shut down discourse they find unacceptable.

“It’s like a tide that keeps coming in. You hope that it doesn’t get to you. As long as it doesn’t you feel free on the beach, but you see the water inching ever closer.”

Join the discussion

  • One of the early signs of the stupidity of Bay area culture in which the Google’s (i.e. companies that produce code-based products and services — is this really “tech”??) of the world emerged was their slogan “don’t be evil”. This was an early (and obvious, to me at least) example of “virtue signaling” — the most idiotic and superficial kind of self-centered phoniness I have ever witnessed in such breadth.

    It was always clear to me that Google itself was certain to emerge as the evil that they were so prepared themselves, from the beginning, to divert attention from. Some call this “projection”.

    Google’s business model is still predominantly based upon replacing the old “classified” ad’s and the like from print media. Facebook is also largely ad-based, but I guess they make a lot of their revenue by selling personal data — again, this is notably quite legal and so-called “privacy” rights are not such, in the US anyway. There are some limited protections of limited forms of privacy that are statutory (and largely pretty recently passed into law), but there is no such thing as a concept of protected privacy enshrined in the US Constitution as a right. I do not think there is much of this in most state constitutions either.

    Call me nuts, but the idea of advertising and social media as anything but a supplementary nicety for a rich society seems like nonsense to me. Essential goods and services suppliers are the basis/foundation of a healthy sustainable economy, I think. It is frightening how unappreciated this has become as we have allowed our core economy to be gutted out, but acute and severe coming events may remind us.

  • The new aspect is how obvious and how widespread this has become. The digital version of the cultural revolution is underway, aided by numerous political figures who are okay with their opponents being hounded or un-personed. It’s the sort of thing associated with history’s most noxious regimes, yet a large swath of the left is rushing to repeat it.

    By the way, the weak excuse that “well, they’re private companies” never seemed to work with things who to serve at the lunch counter, and it falls equally flat here. Besides, culture is always ahead of politics and what’s happening here is echoed in entertainment, academia, and the media itself, so thinking it can extend to govt is not farfetched.

  • Yes, I agree. The large tech companies are now not only manipulating speech and out put on their platforms but are increasing looking to manipulate behaviour as well. Having just read ‘surveillance capitalism’, perhaps Shoshana Zuboff might be an interesting person for Unherd to interview.
    The one area in this interview that I would have been interested to hear discussed is the delicate area where posts violate the law.

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