[UPDATE at the bottom – J.E.]
The feel of the coming election seems to swing back and forth from one hour to the next. At times it seems as if the positive vibe is winning: all the dire threats and warnings and terrors from the Left will come to nothing after all. The vote will be an odd one, but it won’t devolve into chaos. No one from the anti-Trump side who has war-gamed a no-kidding coup – a way to get rid of President Trump regardless of the election’s outcome – will be able to manufacture either the excuse or the opportunity to execute it.
I hope and pray that the “positive vibe” does win out. The negative vibe continues to manifest itself every day, however. Riots and threats and appalling news accumulate. The thought that we may genuinely have more reason to distrust the vote than to trust it can’t simply be waved away.
One of the most disquieting concerns about an extended bout with a disputed vote is the plan of social media to suppress information about it. What this plan amounts to is preventing half the population from sharing basic news items and data points, as well as its point of view about what’s happening, on the premise that this disfavored half is spreading “misinformation.”
No one is appointed to be the authoritative arbiter of what constitutes “misinformation.” That’s why we have a First Amendment. It’s literally why: because no one has a monopoly on what is demonstrably, authoritatively true or valid. Such disinterested omniscience is not a capacity of our species.
The plan to suppress information
Yet Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others all have plans to throttle information sharing via their platforms in conjunction with any election crisis we experience in the coming days, as if such a pretense of authoritative judgment over “truth” is reasonable. It isn’t. And it’s not moderate or “centrist” either. It’s not the proposition we should all agree on. What we should all agree on is the premise of our First Amendment: that not even the government can pretend to be “the” arbiter of informational truth, such that other sources may properly be silenced.
Regarding the election, per se, the scenario the tech giants have built their plan around is one in which the voting numbers on election night favor Trump (and probably other Republicans down-ballot), but there are still a lot of anticipated votes to count. The narrative they will operate by is this: for some time – days, weeks – it will be too early to say who has won. Therefore, no one must be allowed to make a persuasive case, or in fact even to merely state, that Trump or another Republican has won.
The purpose here is not to make for them their argument as to why this can’t be permitted. They purport to associate such informational claims – i.e., saying out loud “Trump has won” – with creating chaos and inviting unrest. The point here is not to debate that case.
The purpose rather is to highlight that they intend to enforce this viewpoint with a policy on suppressing online expression, by people who believe Trump and other Republicans have won their races.
They intend to use certain institutional information sources as their benchmark for when it will be permissible to speak of a candidate as having won the vote. Facebook and Instagram, for example, will warn against claiming that a candidate has won until the National Election Pool and its polling partner Edison Research, and/or Reuters, have made a call.
Google will look to the Associated Press and the group Democracy Works for its calls. Even more than the National Election Pool, Democracy Works is a highly slanted source of information, its board comprising almost entirely left-wing activists and its sponsors being foundations that back a laundry list of “social-justice” narrative projects.
Google plans to post updated information from these sources with its search results. But its intentions go well beyond that.
The Big Tech companies’ plan is basically laid out in levels of interference. They will “flag” information posted by users, to hedge it about with caveats. They will slow down its sharing and limit its reach by disfavoring it in searches and recommendations (a top executive at Mozilla is advising them most urgently to do so). And they will remove it, and even suspend or de-platform users, to keep it from being available for others to see.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve already seen measures taken in some degree at each of these levels, including wholesale content removal and de-platforming. We can’t doubt at this point that the social media and search giants will do these things.
How a plan to seriously disrupt information sharing might look
What we haven’t thought through, however, is how easily those who don’t conform with this concept of suppressing political information could be de-platformed altogether – even if they congregated at an alternative information-sharing forum, such as Parler or Gab.
Users can expect either of those sites, and perhaps others with a smaller reach, to allow the free expression of emerging information and opinions as to which candidates have won – or anything else that could be falsely identified on the Big Tech platforms as “misinformation” and “election interference.” Such possibilities run the gamut from a tweet about anything by Trump, to the mere sharing of video or documentary information about the Bidens, China, and Ukraine.
But users can’t necessarily expect those free-expression sites to remain accessible or available.
That could be because the sites might not have the deep-pocketed strength to withstand a relentless onslaught of hacking and other cyber-attacks (e.g., DDOS attacks).
It could be because Internet security programs like McAfee, Norton, and Windows Defender Antivirus flag disfavored information as “risky” and sequester it.
It could be because online advertising, heavily dominated by Google, pulls the plug in a targeted way that immediately affects the free-speech platforms’ ability to operate.
It might be because the free-speech forums’ contracted hosting services come under other forms of attack, and drop them as customers because of intimidation.
It might be because Internet service providers are intimidated, or induced, to block them by IP address.
In an atmosphere of enough chaos and violent unrest, it might even be because selected ISP and telecom facilities, routinely or necessarily used by the free-speech platforms, come under physical or electronic attack.
I’ve gone through this litany to illuminate what this article is about. It’s about partisan Big Tech media taking desperate measures to silence political opposition and make sure that only one point of view can be effectively shared. If it came to physical attacks on infrastructure facilities, we’d be talking about something beyond that: we’d be talking about black-bloc-type groups, with serious backing, going all-out to deny the Internet to their political opponents.
Their political opponents would be millions of very ordinary people. But what we’ve seen in the last few months informs us that there are, in fact, planners on the “anti-Trump” side – which we must call “anti-Trump” because they’re not all card-carrying Democrats or avowed leftists – who envision precisely the need to deny information technology to millions of ordinary people. Unless they do that – unless they can impose isolation and doubt on those people – they can’t sweep Trump out of office in an extra-constitutional move of some kind.
We can’t foresee right now how serious and well prepared they are for such an extraordinary effort. But we do know for certain that they envision it, because they’ve war-gamed it out.
For this reason, I suggest it would be prudent – as a stopgap, not as a course for the future – to have an emergency plan for the federal government to ensure that online information-sharing services can’t be fully and lopsidedly interdicted.
An analogy here is with the U.S. government providing temporary access for foreign dissidents to online forums; e.g., through making satellite communications available so the dissidents can connect with those forums, hosted outside their countries. The U.S. government doesn’t run the forum(s) or set rules for them, other than ensuring that free expression (consistent with U.S. law on things like child pornography) is prioritized. The government’s role is protecting the ability to connect and use the privately operated commercial service.
In the case of the U.S. Big Tech problem, that could mean supporting the forum platform(s) – again, temporarily – through a loss of ad revenue as well, and enforcing a requirement that ISPs and telecoms host them on a fair, content-impartial basis.
Such enforcement would have to be effective in the moment. It would be pointless to merely litigate it later, after millions of Americans had lost access to information-sharing for crucial weeks because of Big Tech’s partisan bias. It may be necessary to invoke national security powers in this regard. It would not be inappropriate to do so: there should be no attempt to restrict the protections afforded by this concept to right-wing users. What there must be, however, is protection for the expression of right-wing users, as well as others, regardless of how urgently the left-wing population of the Big Tech world wants to suppress it.
This concept is absolutely not about having government run a social network for us. It’s certainly not about forcing Facebook, Twitter, etc. to operate under dictation from the feds. Neither of those is a solution. Government would be as bad in the role of “political information filter” as the Big Tech companies, or worse.
Rather, it’s about temporarily closing a gaping vulnerability in the information infrastructure. The vulnerability is its centralization, and the ease with which access to it can be denied, at single points of pressure, to disfavored groups.
At the end of it all, it will be obvious that there is no going back to the condition we’re in today. But it’s far more than the monopoly of particular companies that needs to be broken up. The very architecture of the Internet has to be broken and reformed. It can’t be constrained to become so centralized again.
Although there are a number of telecoms and ISPs, and different transmission paths, the Internet we have is effectively a single-backbone system. This is as much because of the expectations shaped for the public by the creation of the FCC in 1934 as because of information technology. The situation is too dangerous to liberty and can never be otherwise, if we constrain it by public policy to remain as it is.
But in 2020, we can think outside that box. It is possible for ingenuity and invention to envision a decentralized Internet, and for markets to find a way to make it commercially feasible. That is what we should be looking for down the road.
Perhaps we’ll be granted a grace period in which to ponder these matters and adjust somewhat smoothly. We can be hopeful that the worst won’t befall us today, right now, in less than a week, as a nasty interlude with Election 2020.
But frankly, we shouldn’t think of this goal for the Internet as very far down the road. We already face an Internet increasingly hostile to points of view, and increasingly able to ostracize and suppress them. Today, it’s about interdicting political information; tomorrow, the hazards of an overly centralized Internet will be about access to online banking and buying, access to the Internet of things – including light, heat, and personal vehicle operation – and, of course, access to information of any kind.
*UPDATE*: … and Twitter starts off the election countdown with the promised little boom, advising the newly-landed user that the election results will be delayed, and many may be the marplots claiming their candidate has won.