Freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and speech can be controlled and regulated by private forces in certain ways. In a previous piece, I presented some thoughts on that, and how private power can tilt the marketplace of ideas. However, my primary focus wasn’t to differentiate between degrees of private censorship. As a complement to the first essay I do so here, and tour through the relative levels of concern we should have for each kind of censorship.
It is true that private decision-makers (at least in most Western societies) don’t operate on the assumption that they can send police after those who violate their rules, nor do they claim the right to regulate what everyone says anywhere and everywhere. They simply arbitrate what people, groups, topics, and content get to see the light of day in their spaces and on their platforms. On paper, their decisions don’t extend beyond that. So, one person being kicked out of a Thanksgiving dinner; thousands of people being banned from Facebook; mainstream news outlets refusing to circulate a certain opinion; or entire pockets of society and culture ostracizing someone are all private decisions on association. But, while these examples share a category, they drastically vary in the levels of power and influence at play, and the kind of outcomes they can potentially produce.
Concern for control of spaces for discourse and censorship of speech should be proportional to the degree of power and censorship at play, regardless of whether private or public power is being leveraged. Proponents of a robust marketplace of ideas must keep in mind that although the state is the obvious dragon to be feared (or slain), that does not mean that large private actors (e.g. corporations) and other centers of power can’t have significant impact on the fate of individuals, and a disproportionate influence on the direction of public discourse and thought. The distinction between public and private power often downplays how the latter can leverage its own form of control over the direction of public discourse, thought, and the ability for individuals to freely express themselves. Although many decisions in this regard can often be justified, private decisions that regulate speech and association in private spaces (online or otherwise) are a form of censorship, regulation, and control, even if they don’t work in the exact same way as the state does.
For all of these reasons, it is inadequate to simply draw a distinction between public and private decisions. We must recognize varying degrees of private decision-making power, their potential impact on public discourse and general opinion, and when exactly we should be concerned if this power is exercised.
Small-Scale Private Censorship
Smaller-scale forms of private censorship and control over spaces are best illustrated with the kind of home-and-dinner-table metaphors I alluded to above. Of course, control over your home isn’t the only thing that counts as small-scale private censorship and control of space. Let’s say I belong to an association of 1,000 die-hard fans of Nintendo 64 classic console gaming. This group would (and should) have the right to set the rules, regulations, and agendas that moderate the discussion, control who is allowed in, or who is kicked out.
Even if one disagrees with a decision made at this scale or how it was made, there is usually no cause to call it out as a form of concentrated decision-making power that can have large-scale, negative social or cultural consequences. Furthermore, it’s in these kinds of instances where it is perfectly reasonable to say that anyone who disagrees with a decision or outcome at this scale is free to go and make a competing space. If someone wanted to speak about Nintendo 64 gaming and promote right-wing talking points, by all means they can do so — but over there, away from this club here. The world continues on whether they succeed or not, with freely associating people organizing themselves. The classic points about the benefits of the marketplace of ideas and association are all applicable here.
The overall impact of being censored, banned, or barred by a group like this is minimal, especially given that the power at play here is relatively unconcentrated. These small-scale decisions end up generating outcomes that tend toward the most efficient and satisfactory for all sides involved.
Large-Scale Private Censorship
The story changes as the size and importance of the forum and space being regulated does. So too should our concern for the level of power and influence at play. Here is where comparisons to Thanksgiving dinner tables are less applicable, and should be done less flippantly. Take Facebook: A critical mass of people uses it as a place for political and cultural discourse, discussion, organizing, and so on. It has secured a place in many societies as a large part of the political and cultural fabric. Those who control platforms, publishing outlets, and other private forums, media — or even key technologies that enable communication (e.g. telecommunications infrastructure) — are in positions to affect more than the updating of user interfaces. Indeed, many outlets and platforms affect the directionof public discourse, what is considered to be on the spectrum of acceptable opinion, and influence perception of who and what are credible and deserving of consideration, both directly and indirectly.
Unfortunately, if someone (or some group) is de-platformed, disavowed, or censored by large-scale decision-maker, those who agree with the decision or outcome tend to rush to claim the cultural and social impact of those decisions is being exaggerated. If that is the case, then why are so many of the same people so eager to see people de-platformed, banned, or removed from certain private spaces? It seems in those circumstances most believe those decisions not only preserve the integrity and sanity of an event or club, but also work as public pronouncements by powerful entities on important or controversial issues — perhaps influencing others to think the same way or change their mind on an issue as well. Agreement with a decision that aligns with your views avoids the key point that there are those who hold power that can influence and direct public discourse and thought. That powerful private actors are on your side today is more arbitrary than one might assume. If the cheering proponents of today’s decision found themselves on the losing end of it tomorrow, they would probably be crying foul just as loudly, or perhaps more. One must begin to ask if this level of concentrated power begins to be troubling in societies that hope to reap the benefits of a wide spectrum of public discourse.
Of course, private power and control of speech, associations, and spaces at the larger scale don’t happen in a vacuum, and it’s never all bad. This power often puts much-needed checks on other forms of private power, and in some cases even public power. And, while large-scale private censorship can, in theory, have extremely troubling results, there is still some sort of case to be made that the impact remains limited to the space in question.
But, that doesn’t always hold true.
Institutional and Class Censorship and Control
The benefits of large-scale private decision making must be appreciated without failing to recognize that this degree of decision-making power and influence dwarfs what one individual or small group can affect. These decision makers and decisions are also in many ways completely sheltered from public input, and can at times have troubling outcomes. Furthermore, the impact of these sorts of decisions often expands beyond the people and platforms directly involved, and into affecting our culture. Key players in certain industries, professions, social circles, and so on can make decisions that snowball into what are effectively agenda- and norm-setting decisions.
Private decisions by a large-scale decision maker with economic and social influence tend to directly influence others, especially those that align with the decision maker for reasons of direct and indirect business or social interest. For others that don’t align with a decision maker by default, it at the very least puts them on some sort of notice. This is usually not some coordinated conspiracy (although that is possible still), but rather a kind of emergent order heavily tilted by those who have a lot more social power and influence than others. It’s not hard to find some famous examples of things like industry blacklists, and this kind of censorship and form of disassociation often realizes itself in subtler ways. The setting of certain rules, norms, and tacit agreements between powerful and influential people and institutions often affects all corners of an industry or field. The waterfall of right-wingers being banned first by a social platform, then gradually being removed from others, and perhaps finally losing access to funding or donations enabled by other platforms as a result of the social power and influence exercised by the first sets of decision makers is but one example.
Here again, many aren’t as worried as they should be when decisions or norms come into play that bring about agreeable results. It’s crucial to recognize how far away from the start of the story on dinner tables we are, and why our level of concern should approach new heights. Being blacklisted or having a widespread form of tacit discrimination leveled against you is in a different league than someone telling you to leave their house or small club and not speak to them about a certain topic ever again. Widespread censorship, disassociation can happen in key areas of a culture’s social paradigm and disrupt or destroy lives — none of which requires any sweeping government decree or official ruling. The only thing needed are private decisions. And, in many cases we arrive at these outcomes in large part due to a disproportionate amount of power and influence certain actors or institutions have as compared to others — not necessarily through a democratic or market-oriented process as is often preached.
Indeed, private power sets private agendas, which can be very much at odds with what wider society thinks is right. The sort of tacit understandings and norms between people in positions of power to block some basic factual and moral truths is what George Orwell was speaking about in his unpublished introduction to Animal Farm:
“The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.
Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio.”
Whether by direct decree and rulemaking, or by influencing the direction of tacit understandings and norms, those with enough social and economic power can ensure there are consequences for anyone not falling in line with the “correct” way of thinking. The consequences of this go beyond not being allowed on a certain platform to post your memes, and range from anything from losing a job to being continually marked as a pariah or hack by powerful people who influence the opinion of other powerful people. In this way, a rigid and dangerous form of censorship can work its way across entire sectors or pockets of our lives. Again, none of which requires action or encouragement by the state — even if the state does often benefit from it.
This kind of thing is amusing to many when right-wingers or racists get the social beating-stick, but perhaps wouldn’t be so funny if the script was flipped.
Social and Cultural Censorship and Control
At some point, this whole discussion becomes less about whether you can have a certain job, get an opinion published, have a platform for your political views, or become accepted within a specific industry, and more fundamentally addresses whether your opinions and behavior are welcome in civil society. It is worth considering how many of our perceived social consensuses are truly the result of people coming to their own feelings and conclusions, and how much of a role concentrations of private power played in forming the perception of social consensus.
When certain instances of private censorship play within the larger context in a wave of progress, it is a comforting thought for many who already agree with the direction and results that what they are seeing are the great workings of a kind of intellectual and social market in action. After all, how else would social progress actually happen from one generation to another? Furthermore, if the outcomes are viewed as favorable, the idea is that the results should almost be a kind of internalized censorship we all share, enforced on an ongoing basis to some degree by the people and norms we find ourselves surrounded by.
In many cases it is more than safe to say that a certain, relatively new prevailing attitude is truly the result of some sort of cultural shift finally emerging and taking hold. This is especially true if the change itself has taken a long time. However, there are many cases where certain truths wouldn’t make for friendly conversation beyond friends (or perhaps family). For instance, describing the United States as a military and economic empire whose exercise of power and influence across the globe results, in many cases, in thousands of deaths and needless amounts of suffering, would be acceptable to many, or at least some. But, many would only chart the United States as largely the good guys, perhaps prone to some unfortunate missteps and collateral damage in the quest to fulfill largely good intentions. There are entirely reasonable grounds to suspect that this is not due to the chips falling where they may on the market of educated opinion making and assessment, but rather that many operate under a variety of dead assumptions and truths they absorb through entrenched institutions and influencers that function as cultural managers, like the mainstream education systems and corporate media.
There is rarely an even playing field between the censor and the censored. That is why the distinction between public and private censorship is only one part of the story. Right now, it turns out that the ones who enjoy ownership of the heftiest power of private censorship and association are the ones who have a more concentrated share of social or economic power and standing as a result of corporate or state dealings. Whether one finds themselves mostly in agreement with these decision-makers, and enjoys the cultural impact of them, is a matter of value judgement. That the exact opposite could occur with the same level of impact and intensity is the troubling fact that should be considered.
As private institutions get larger and more powerful, their ability to control the public conversation increases. Historically, it turns out that private power and social trends haven’t always been the friendliest to the opinions in the minority. Right now, it’s paying in many ways for huge corporations and media outlets to signal alignment with a relatively socially liberal point of view, and even act upon it through various decisions. Unfortunately, the question isn’t if, but when, certain vulnerable minority groups will enter or re-enter the crosshairs through a widespread social and cultural denial of association and speech that aligns with a more illiberal public consensus.
That certain people and entities should have the right to use their power is not the beginning and end of all worthy discussion about private censorship, who exercises it, and what its effects are. In today’s climate, everyone wants the quick and easy answer or rule of thumb, crammable into a tweet, that provides the answer on how to feel about private censorship and control of speech and spaces. The reality is that there is no easy answer to how to respond to these problems. A radically liberal society is not one we can wind up with a certain set of rules and set in motion forever with no maintenance and questions. It’s one that must constantly play a balancing act and live through the struggle of maximizing the potential to realize its core values. At the very least, what we ought to do on this issue is avoid discounting our levels of concern for a system of power just because it is not the state. We must not let the “private” status of an individual or institution cloud our consideration of the issue of censorship and its effects on the censored, public discourse, and freedom of thought.
This essay was originally published at c4ss.org