Unless the aggregated the power that was described in the first blog of this series, Free Speech and Big Tech – The Problem, is not checked and balanced, the likely consequence will be the end to free societies. Recognizing and understanding why that is the case is essential to finding a cure for the problem that does not do as much harm as the disease will be hard. Let’s sort this out by first pinpointing the problematic consequence.
Big Tech (1) controls the primary means humans use to communicate ideas (speech), something essential to a free society,[i] (2) can tweak its algorithms to promote negative comments and suppress positive comments about anyone and thereby demonize anyone while being blocking or overwhelming the victim’s attempt to defend herself, (3) can ban anyone from the primary communication platforms, and/or (4) can surveil everyone who uses those platforms. These are awesome powers.
Having the power to surveil is particularly important for Big Tech’s power because it enables Big Tech to discover things about people who use the primary means of communication that those people do not want to be made public. Obtaining compromising information about people gives Big Tech the power to blackmail. The threat that Big Tech can allow negative comments about a person to flow far and wide while stifling positive comments (defame people with the curated words of others) gives Big Tech a highly effective way to force people to shut up. Knowing how essential free speech was to a free society, ensuring that every citizen’s right to free speech would not be infringed was a first, and foremost goal of the U.S. founders. Unfortunately, the founders did not have the clairvoyance to see that an institution other than the government might amass enough power to infringe on free speech.
As subversive to a free society Big Tech’s power to infringe on citizen’s free speech rights is, exercising that power against citizens is not the worst consequence of Big Tech’s power. Big Tech power to surveil and blackmail politicians and bureaucrats is worse.
A fundamental and eternal bane of human existence is that while humans flourish more in societies that have rules established by effective rulers, unless those rulers are reasonably restrained, rulers become tyrannical. Societies that have achieved the most humans flourishing have a set of rules that limit the powers of rulers to become tyrannical by giving their citizens an ability to dethrone rulers who exceed the powers delegated to them. That approach to governance is fundamental to the most successful country in human history, America. Big Tech’s power, however, is changing America’s fundamental approach to governance.
As Dr. Robert Epstein testified to Congress in July 2019, “In 2016, Google’s search algorithm likely impacted undecided voters in a way that shifted at least 2.6 million votes to Hillary Clinton, whom I supported… In the weeks leading up to the 2018 election, bias in Google search results may have shifted upwards of 78.2 million votes, spread across many races to the candidates of one political party.”[ii] Politicians are supposedly accountable to the people because the people have the power to vote them out of office if they do not serve the interests of the people. That theory falls apart if there is a separate power that can destroy a politician’s chance of getting elected if she does not serve the political and economic objectives of that power. “One man, one vote” has little meaning when corporations can control who can be nominated.
As bad the high priests of Big Tech meddling in elections is, it is not the worst consequence.
If it is not already there, Big Tech will soon supplant the government as the predominate power that controls how society works. Once free speech is sufficiently stifled, tyranny will follow. This is because “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely… [and] as a person’s power increases, their moral sense diminishes.”[iii] However moral Big Tech may be today, which is debatable, history clearly demonstrates that morality is a minor factor in decision-making by tyrants, if it is a factor at all.[iv]
Whistleblowers, hidden camera videos, and purloined memos of Big Tech officials have revealed that Big Tech is actively exercising its powers to achieve its political and financial objectives.[v] Those practices would be less problematic if (1) humans had not so overwhelmingly gravitated to Big Tech’s modes of communication, (2) Big Tech had not used and would not continue to use the wealth generated by humans consuming its products to invest in product-improving R&D at rates that will outpace potential competitors, (3) all the corporate officers of the companies that run the primary modern modes of communication did not have the same political philosophies and objectives, then Big Tech’s power could be checked by competition from companies with officers that had political philosophies and objectives that challenged the political groupthink that has enthralled Big Tech executives. Because all of that happened, Big Tech is using its unchecked, unchallenged, monolithic power to impose their philosophy (religion, actually) on society, including its electoral processes. This collection of powers has grown constantly and continues to get stronger. In many respects its power to affect elections is greater than any politician, party, or deep state actor.
Perhaps more important than all of that, with its surveillance and speech control abilities, Big Tech has the power to blackmail most, if not all, politicians and bureaucrats to serve their financial and political purposes. A threat by Big Tech to demonize, embarrass, silence, subject to criminal inquiry, etc. against a politician would be highly credible, i.e., effective. In short, Big Tech has or soon will have the power to tell politicians and bureaucrats what laws or regulations they need to support and to lie to Congress and investigators with impunity (prosecutors dare not fall out of favor with Big Tech). The idea that a people can live in a society under a government of the people, by the people, and for the people may be a thing of the past if a way to check Big Tech’s power is not found and implemented.
As will be discussed in the next post, finding a way to address this threat to liberty that does not do more harm than good is a monumental challenge.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post is more relevant, timely, and important than I knew as I was writing it. As I was working to get the article uploaded to my blog today, Project Veritas posted THIS VIDEO, which is a video of a Google employee whistleblower explaining how Google is manipulating search results to achieve the political objectives of the top brass at Google. The damage that Google and other Big Tech players is doing to America’s democratic republic is tremendous and horrifying.
The invention and adoption of “The Enlightenment” ideas by people in the “Western World” enabled them to vastly outpace the rest of the world with respect to freedom, inventiveness, prosperity, and human flourishing. In so doing, they produced manifold blessings for themselves and the rest of humankind. Sadly, they inflicted many miseries along the way on others and subsets of their own people. Happily, however, as those countries implemented The Enlightenment ideas more broadly and effectively over a few hundred years, they accelerated the improvement in humans’ standards of living by many millennia compared to what would have been achieved using pre-enlightenment ideas.
Here is a great visual representation of what The Enlightenment bestowed on humankind:
This graph adds and zooms in on more recent data:
The AEI article from which I grabbed the first chart above said, “… the chart above could perhaps qualify as the “chart of the century” because it illustrates one of the most remarkable achievements in human history: the 80% reduction in world poverty in only 36 years, from 26.8% of the world’s population living on $1 or less (in 1987 dollars) in 1970 to only 5.4% in 2006.”[i] Abject poverty has continued to fall significantly since 2006—as more and more countries embraced and implemented The Enlightenment ideas.[ii] (Though most countries, even ones that have adopted some Enlightenment ideas, remain plagued with too many unenlightened ideas and too many once enlightened countries are abandoning The Enlightenment ideas.[iii])
So, what was so special about those ideas? The Enlightenment thinker, Immanuel Kant, described The Enlightenment as “humankind’s release from its self-incurred immaturity; ‘immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.’”[iv] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy had this to say about The Enlightenment:
“The Enlightenment is most identified with its political accomplishments. The era is marked by three political revolutions, which together lay the basis for modern, republican, constitutional democracies: The English Revolution (1688), the American Revolution (1775–83), and the French Revolution (1789–99). The success at explaining and understanding the natural world encourages the Enlightenment project of re-making the social/political world, in accord with the models we allegedly find in our reason. Enlightenment philosophers find that the existing social and political orders [e.g., the divine right of kings] do not withstand critical scrutiny.”[v]
The Enlightenment enabled and encouraged everyone, not just the monarchs, lords, and their advisers, to think, explore, experiment, invent, and have a go at finding better ideas and making things better—with a heavy emphasis on thinking. Thinking in a vacuum is much better than not thinking, but bouncing ideas off of others to test whether one’s ideas are sound is an exponentially better process of thinking and to find the truth. Consequently, as a means to extract the maximum value from the power of thinking and discovering what is true, The Enlightenment extolled the virtues of robust and uninfringed free speech.
In short, free speech is essential to making things better because it is what humans use to explore nature and to test the validity and merit of ideas through vigorous debate. Good science and good governance depend on understanding the nature of things and giving due consideration of both the positive and negative aspects and consequences of an idea or a proposed policy. An idea that has survived the gauntlet of honest and vigorous debate is far more likely to make things better (do more good than harm) than an idea that sails through on the wings of blinkering emotions that have been unenlightened by a vigorous challenge. As Jordan Peterson put it, free speech “is bedrock and it is not something that is arbitrary, it’s not a mere game that we’re playing in the West—none of that—it’s the most fundamental truth that the human race has ever discovered, and we lose it at our absolute peril.”[vi]
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution it spawned are, perhaps, the crowning achievement of The Enlightenment. They spawned the most successful and powerful, while (given its capacity to be otherwise) exceptionally non-hegemonic. The essentiality of free speech to an effective democratic-republican government was made clear by its priority in the Bill of Rights. The first two limitations on government in the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights deal with free speech. The first item listed was a prohibition of government established/imposed religion, which, by using blasphemy laws, has historically been humankind’s fiercest opponent of free speech and independent thinking. The second item listed was a direct prohibition of any law that infringes on free speech. Many other countries have embraced the virtues of free speech in their governing documents, but few, if any, come close to the reverence for the idea that Americans have—at least historically. (That Americans’ reverence for free speech is waning is the motivation for this post.)
Consequently, if Americans were taught American history as it should be taught, Americans would understand that infringing on speech by government action, by companies with control over our modern means of communications (the power to shadow ban, shadow ban, or demonetize certain speakers while promoting other speakers), or by individuals or groups shouting down speakers, giving low grades on papers that express ideas unsympathetic to the teacher’s beliefs, or mob violence impedes human progress and flourishing. Sadly, Americans are, to a significant, if not a great degree, being taught the opposite.
An ever-growing percentage of Americans is calling for infringement of free speech by both individuals and our institutions.[vii] That children and young adults have been and are being taught to be intolerant of speech they don’t like was starkly evidenced by the University of Chicago feeling compelled to warn incoming freshmen that intellectual inquiry via free speech will be permitted and promoted at UofC. Not only have very few colleges followed suit, many are doubling down on shielding students from ideas that stray even slightly from leftist orthodoxy,[viii] encouraging professors not to debate non-leftists (as if they need encouragement), and are complicit by insufficient suppression of students and professors who do what they can to prevent non-leftists from speaking on or near campus. Many universities are so dedicated to the proposition that people’s freedom to speak of ideas that are incompatible with the leftists’ ideology that they have set up, usually small and avoidable “free speech zones” to keep non-leftist speech as infringed as possible.[ix] In short, higher education has been for a long time and remains filled with crusaders against the ideas (first and foremost, free speech) that are responsible for the hockey sticks of human flourishing depicted above in favor of ideologies that return excessive power to cloistered monks in ivory towers and rulers on thrones of prodigious power.
Let’s pause to note a mental inconsistency by university professors and administrators who suppress speech that runs counter to their dogmas. Universities are, among other things, society’s centers of science. They profess to be society’s primary practitioners, defenders, and champions of the scientific method. A lament often emanating from universities and their acolytes is that much of the general public “deny science” (intending to shame those who deny truths that have been derived from the scientific method). Yet, in large part, the scientific method discovers truths by challenging and disproving prior scientific claims. Scientists and the public continue to refer to Copernicus (born 1473) because he challenged the prevailing groupthink about the solar system. So, while they extol the virtues of challenging orthodoxy in order to discover scientific truths, they blithely promote or tolerate interfering with the use of the scientific method to discover truths concerning ideologies and public policies.
Rarely in human history have rulers not used every power grabbed by or yielded to them to silence opposition to what they do, including the aggregation of ever more power. Though far from perfect, Americans have been exceptionally tolerant of the public criticizing leaders. Not only was such criticism tolerated, Americans believe they have an unalienable the right to do so. That essential attitude toward free speech has been significantly eroded since Big Tech has become the primary means by which humans communicate with each other and, because our societal safeguards were not designed to deal with private entities having greater power to infringe on free speech than the government could ever hope to have, we are in serious jeopardy of losing it all.
For over 200 years the First Amendment has been a somewhat effective shield against being silenced. In 1789, the means by which humans exercised free speech to affect rulers and their policies were face-to-face conversations, speeches/debates in the public square, and the press. All of those primary forms of communication were constitutionally protected against infringement by the two entities that had enough power to stifle a person’s inalienable right to speak freely, government and a government-established church. The founders reasonably believed that the First Amendment’s “wall between church and state” and the prohibition against infringing on a citizen’s inalienable right to speak was sufficient to prevent people in power from stifling free speech. As grounded in reality and blessed with brilliance as they were, the founders could not have imagined that someday a completely new and vastly different group of non-governmental “sheriffs” would come to town packing the power to silence blasphemers, however, the sheriffs self-servingly choose to defined blasphemy. Big Tech has invented and deployed those sheriffs. America, we have a problem.
The new sheriffs, primarily Google/YouTube, Facebook/ Instagram, and Twitter (“Big Tech”), now control people’s primary modes of communication and they are not constrained by the Constitution, or much of anything other than their own conscious and the whims of the mob—the very thing that the Constitution’s checks and balances was designed to prevent. Their power to stifle speech rivals and to promote the speech of their allies exceeds the power of the popes of the Holy Roman Empire or Mohamed and is vastly greater than the constitutionally limited U.S. federal government. It would not be so bad if there were competition among the Big Tech companies as to what speech should be heard, but they all have similar political and moral ideologies.
Of course, Big Tech denies that it is stifling the speech of some and promoting the speech of others.[x] Perhaps they believe their denials. Those denials, however, ring plausible only to those who have been proselytized into the faith of leftist orthodoxy.
That Big Tech has its ideas as to what is good and bad and will use its power to cause what it believes to be the good word and suppress what they believe to be the bad word (and demonize the speakers of bad words) is disputable only with newspeak. Conservatives have long complained that Google,[xi] Facebook,[xii] Twitter,[xiii] and Instagram (“Big Tech”) stifle their speech. The same is true of Libertarians.[xiv] Prager University has sued in an attempt to stop the abuse of power of Big Tech./[xv] Despite Big Tech’s pious but phony denials, that the new sheriffs have suppressed commentary out of line with leftist orthodoxy cannot be seriously disputed. (If you doubt this, see all the endnote to this post, especially this one.xvi Compelling evidence of the legitimacy of those complaints is the recent Project Veritas reports[xvii] and the fact that Google is attempting to cover its tracks.[xviii]
This reality threatens the single most important bedrock idea that produced the most successful society in human history, the inalienable right to free speech.
In my apocalyptic estimation, the future of America as a good place to live and as the last best hope that freedom[xix] can exist in the world depends on reinstituting Enlightenment ideas in America. It is possible that when snuffed out here those ideas can be rekindled elsewhere, e.g., New Zealand or Croatia, but I doubt it. The only candidate with a reasonable shot at saving The Enlightenment ideas is America. Figuring out how to undo the damage and reverse the course described above will be extremely difficult. I do not have the answer. Let’s hope that not all intellectuals are Intellectual Yet Idiots.
Sadly, like most important societal problems, there are no solutions[xx] to the problem Big Tech has created. There are negative consequences to any course of action. All of the proposed “cures” for the problem of which I am aware might, on balance, make things worse. Those issues are well worth sorting out. Let’s do that in a future post.