A few years back, I published a cyberpunk a novel called Hammerjack, which imagined a near-future in which governments had largely been displaced by huge corporate interests that controlled everything. It was mainly an excuse to create a world filled with cool tech and, as one reviewer put it, “kick-ass cyberbabes,” but it also seemed like a pretty plausible direction for the world to move—and this was before social media really started to dominate the scene.
Now here we are, just a little more than a decade later, and the idea of a corporate dystopia feels a lot less abstract. Case in point: the recent purge of Steven Crowder—along with who knows how many others—from YouTube. Of course, Google’s video “platform” didn’t ban Crowder outright: his videos still appear there, and his nearly four million subscribers can click on them to their hearts’ content. Crowder just can’t make any money on them. In other words, despite all the time, energy and expense he puts into creating his content and all the advertising that such a large audience draws, YouTube has de-monetized him—effectively impeding (if not destroying) Crowder’s ability to create content.
Why did they do this? Basically because some pipsqueak from Vox, whom I will not name here to avoid giving him more infamy that he already has, complained about how Crowder mocked him on YouTube. Given than Crowder is a comedian, you would figure that mocking is a regular part of his shtick—and given than there are so-called “mainstream” comedians who have said a whole lot worse about other people (I’m looking at you, Samatha Bee and Stephen Coal-bert), why some Vox writer getting his Underoos in a bunch would warrant such drastic action from YouTube would seem to be a mystery. That is, until you consider that the likes of Bee and Coal-bert are avowed liberals, whereas Crowder is a conservative.
Censorship, corporate America style!
David French comments on this at length in National Review today, and points out a few dangers for those who think that government action would be a quick and easy remedy:
The First Amendment limits the government’s power to force a private corporation to provide a platform for speech it despises. Government regulation of media is an almost impossibly complex topic. . .but here’s a general principle — the more any social-media company curates its content, the more First Amendment protection it is likely to enjoy.
In a very direct way, as Facebook or any other social-media company works on its algorithms, tries to filter out fake news, and refines its community standards, it’s staking out its identity as a private actor making specific speech and membership choices to build a specific kind of private community.
Moreover, if the government launches other action (like, say, an antitrust investigation) in reprisal for social-media companies’ exercising their constitutional rights, then even that other action may well be shut down by federal courts.
French makes another salient observation:
Here’s the blunt truth, however — most red Americans either don’t know or don’t care about social-media censorship. They certainly don’t care enough to delete their apps. This isn’t a market failure; it’s a market verdict. Apathy rules, and this apathy is sustained in part because social-media companies have chosen their targets carefully.
And herein one finds a prime example of why a rift has opened up between conservatives like French and conservatives like Sohrab Ahmari (or, more vociferously, chaps like Ace of Spades and Kurt Schlicter): at the core of French’s argument is that there is little that can be done about the problem, at least while remaining within the boundaries of conservative principle.
Hence the frustration. You can only admonish people so much about the importance of sticking to their philosophical guns while at the same time taking away their ammunition. And it’s very difficult to get rank-and-file conservatives to see the wisdom of working within the system while more and more each day that very same system is being leveraged against them.
The problem is that French isn’t wrong, either—but he may not fully appreciate how much the playing field has changed, and the implications that has about the future of conservative governance. Because right now, it isn’t the federal government that is posing the greatest threat to civil liberties. It’s actually corporate America, which has increasingly declared its fealty to the Left—and has taken affirmative steps toward helping the Left fulfill its vision for the country.
It’s not just social media, either. Salesforce, a prominent vendor of business software, has declared that it will not do business with companies that sell certain kinds of firearms and firearm accessories—even though those products are completely legal. In this, they’re following the lead of several banks that have refused services to gun dealers. How long will it take for these same businesses to start de-monetizing people for holding other views with which they disagree? Gun ownership is a civil right, just like free speech—so why should free speech be sacrosanct to them?
The truth is that the Left, for what they cannot do through the legislature and the courts, has started to employ private corporations to carry out their agenda. And given the consolidation of businesses across the country, it is becoming increasingly difficult for conservatives to simply take their business elsewhere. Right now, big corporations are in a position to inflict far more pain on the public than the public is capable of inflicting on them—and that’s the reality of the world we’re living in today.
This represents perhaps the greatest challenge to conservatism in this day and age. It remains to be seen if those principles are up to the challenge.