Internationally, social networks have readily censored verified journalists who have challenged their respective country’s political authorities, but now these social networks are censoring journalists and influential personalities in the United States based upon differences in political and social ideology. On June 12, 2019 Project Veritas—which specializes in undercover investigative journalism—tweeted evidence of bias at Pinterest against pro-life advocates. It revealed screenshots of Pinterest’s internal communications where an employee called Daily Wire editor-in-chief Ben Shapiro a “white supremacist” and noted that his name and advertisements have been added to the “sensitive terms” list.
According to Project Veritas, Pinterest also removed the term “Christian” from auto-fill search functions and temporarily blocked posts that linked to the pro-life organization Live Action. Pinterest placed Live Action on its porn domain block list before banning it entirely. It also labeled undercover videos of Planned Parenthood from Center for Medical Progress founder David Daleiden as “conspiracy,” despite the opinion of digital forensic experts that his videos were “authentic and show no evidence of manipulation.”
Twitter responded by blocking Project Veritas’ post for violating its rules against posting private information. Host of “Tipping Point” at One America News Network Liz Wheeler challenged the hypocrisy of Twitter with the tweet, “Did Twitter apply this so-called privacy standard to Wikileaks? Or HRC’s emails? Or Trump’s tax documents? NO.”
Likewise, YouTube removed Project Veritas’ Pinterest insider story from its platform. Founder of Project Veritas James O’Keefe tweeted, “The established media and technology are so afraid of investigative journalism they need to censor it. YouTube calls REPORTING on someone by showing their face and name, and how they added a pro-life group to a porn blacklist, a ‘privacy complaint.’ Would they do this to NYT?”
Particularly disturbing is the appearance of coordination among Big Tech social networks to suppress Project Veritas’ content. This prompted The Daily Wire to write, “The layers of censorship here are overlapping. First, Pinterest censors content that offends their employees’ personal or political beliefs, despite what their users want to post or share according to their own personal or political beliefs. Second, Twitter then censors the investigative journalists exposing the Pinterest censorship. Then, YouTube removes content Project Veritas put up about the Pinterest and Twitter censorship. It’s a social media blackout.”
Such blackouts and selective censorship are more common among social networks than many realize. In 2018 Project Veritas secured video of a former Twitter software engineer explaining how the censorship of certain political viewpoints is becoming automated via machine learning. Moreover, he admitted that Twitter is “shadow banning” certain viewpoints, saying, “One strategy is to shadow ban so you have ultimate control. The idea of a shadow ban is that you ban someone but they don’t know they’ve been banned, because they keep posting and no one sees their content. So they just think that no one is engaging with their content, when in reality, no one is seeing it.”
Similarly, Facebook appears to have deliberately targeted conservative content for censoring. According to a June 2018 Gateway Pundit study, “Facebook has eliminated 93% of traffic to top conservative news outlets” since January of 2017. And Microsoft threatened to remove Gab, an alternative to Twitter, from its Microsoft Azure website hosting service if it failed to self-censor hate speech.
The quest to prevent “inaccurate information”—fake news—and intolerance is producing a growing threat in America. Hate speech policies are playing a particularly significant role in the effort to control information. The nebulous term “hate speech” has become a convenient catch-all for anything that either side deems to be fake news, intolerant, and potentially harmful to their politics and worldview. Recently, this ambiguous category of speech was cited as justification for an apparently coordinated effort by corporate giants in technology and social media to censor Alex Jones and his news site, InfoWars.
In the space of a single day, a nationally known—albeit polarizing—journalist and radio host was largely purged from the internet’s largest platforms for the crime of disseminating “the wrong” information. The justification for abruptly removing entire libraries featuring 20 years of Alex Jones’ content and channels boasting millions of subscribers was unspecified violations of hate speech policies and hateful content that could lead to harm. Likewise, Facebook blocked Jones “for glorifying violence … and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims, and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies.”
Alluding to the 2.4 million subscribers to the now deleted Alex Jones YouTube channel, Wikileaks mused on Twitter, “Which publisher in the world with millions of subscribers is next to be wiped out for cultural transgression?” Nine months later, comedian and political commentator Steven Crowder’s YouTube channel with nearly 4 million subscribers became the target of a deplatforming campaign led by Vox video producer Carlos Maza. Despite himself having advocated violence and having defended militant groups such as Antifa, Maza argued that Crowder’s disrespectful references to his sexual orientation should be sufficient cause to eliminate Crowder’s channel.
Following an “in-depth review,” YouTube concluded that, although Steven Crowder used hurtful language, he hadn’t violated any specific policy. As such, YouTube did not ban Crowder’s channel. However, the next day it appeared to backtrack, announcing that YouTube was suspending Crowder’s ability to run ads and monetize his videos because of a pattern of “egregious actions” that had “harmed the broader community” and violated the vague and ambiguous YouTube Partner Program policies. It also announced plans to remove thousands of videos and channels in an effort to clean up extremism and hate speech on its platform. YouTube’s new standard specifically prohibits “videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status.”
Moreover, YouTube announced plans to further adjust its algorithms to suppress videos that do not violate any specific policy but whose content is considered “borderline.” These efforts began in 2017 when YouTube limited features like comments and the ability to share videos they deem to be hateful. According to YouTube, “This step dramatically reduced views to these videos (on average 80%).” Now YouTube is changing their recommended videos feature “to limit recommendations of borderline content and harmful misinformation, such as videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, or claiming the earth is flat.” Already this change has successfully reduced the number of views to borderline content by 50% in the United States.
Furthermore, YouTube will now deliberately “start raising up more authoritative content in recommendations”. News sources deemed authoritative by YouTube will be pushed to the forefront while less authoritative and borderline content will be intentionally suppressed. However, YouTube is by no means politically objective. According to The New York Times, “Like many Silicon Valley companies, YouTube is outwardly liberal in its corporate politics. It sponsors floats at L.G.B.T. pride parades and celebrates diverse creators, and its chief executive endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.”
Who should determine what content is borderline, whose opinions are informative versus hateful, and which news reports are accurate? The world’s largest platforms for social conversation have taken this responsibility upon themselves and are now creating boundaries for acceptable content based upon their worldview and political predispositions. Considering that The New York Times labels these companies overtly partisan, it is not surprising that there appears to be an inconsistent standard as YouTube, Facebook, et. al continue to allow some of the most inaccurate, perverse, and hate-ridden rhetoric from those with the “correct” political and social views.
Truth has become relative, and the concept of hate speech is becoming the new Billy club of those who wish to suppress certain views.
Considering that Google and its platforms, including YouTube, accounted for 34% of all time spent on digital media in June of 2018, we should be greatly concerned that companies like Google are taking the initiative to determine what content is and is not appropriate for the social conversation. Freedom of speech is under assault by corporations, and we are permitting it because they claim to be protecting us from intolerance and fake news. Today, conspiracy theories and intolerant language toward transgenders, Muslims, and immigrants are deemed too egregious and vitriolic to expose the public to it. What will be considered too extreme tomorrow?
We already know that many influential corporations believe the Christian message to be intolerant, hateful, and potentially harmful to society. The clock is ticking down. After the conspiracy theorists, xenophobes, and homophobes are silenced, these corporations will likely turn their attention to the next group espousing intolerant hate speech … Christians who uphold the teachings of the Bible and who say that Jesus is the only way to be saved. This has already occurred in countries such as Canada and Sweden. If we are not careful, it will also happen here in America. If we do not protect the freedom to express contrary viewpoints in the public square, then the Bible and the Christian message risk being eventually censored as hate speech.
There is a growing threat to our ability to spread the gospel and uphold God’s moral standard in America, and it is using the spread of false and inaccurate information as its cover. Controversies over the control of information under the guise of combating intolerance and fake news are nothing to be dismissed. They are not irrelevant partisan fights. Instead, they are the front lines of today’s culture war, and they deserve our prayerful attention and thoughtful response.
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