Following declining traffic rates on their websites, an assortment of conspiracy theorists, hoax peddlers, anti-Muslim bigots, partisan activists, and pro-Trump media figures -- who depend on social media to broadcast their messages and profit from their audiences -- convened a panel in Washington, D.C., to claim tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook are “shadow-banning” and censoring them for being conservative and supporting President Donald Trump.
The panel on Social Media Neutrality, put together on February 6 by The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft, featured Right Side Broadcasting Network's (RSBN) Margaret Howell, anti-Muslim bigot Pamela Geller, software developer Marlene Jaeckel, and The People's Cube's Oleg Atbashian -- whose site’s content has triggered the Defense Department’s flags for hate and racism. Fox News regular Michelle Malkin and self-proclaimed “guerrilla journalist” (but actual partisan hack) James O'Keefe also made video appearances.
The participants were united in their claim that, based on their declining traffic rates since after the election, Facebook, Twitter, and Google must be silencing or “shadow-banning” them. A “shadow-ban” refers to when users are blocked from sharing content to an online community, but can’t tell they have been banned. Hoft took issue with digital platforms warning users that his website contains “disputed articles,” even though his site has a lengthy record of publishing false information.
After expressing her admiration for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ programming at Infowars, RSBN’s Howell accused Media Matters of “orchestrat[ing] a hit” against RSBN’s YouTube channel and being “in cahoots” with tech giants, claiming a Media Matters piece was the reason Facebook removed RSBN’s content for violating terms of service without clarifying which terms of service the platform had considered violated. She also claimed YouTube started censoring RSBN’s videos in the search results and marking videos as “not suitable for most advertisers.” RSBN, according to Howell, was born in reaction to then-candidate Trump’s (false) narrative that mainstream media never showed the crowds at his rallies and twisted his statements out of context. RSBN is also the same network that was once comfortable hiring former Infowars reporter Joe Biggs to host one of its shows, despite Biggs’ awful history of trivializing date rape or encouraging violence against transgender people.
Both Michelle Malkin and Pamela Geller accused social media companies of censoring their platforms, which they’ve used to post anti-Muslim content. Malkin and Geller frequently appear on Fox News to malign entire Muslim communities or demean undocumented immigrants. Geller also accused media and tech companies of removing content critical of Islam because Sharia law, according to her, mandates that Islam not be criticized.
Another panelist, Marlene Jaeckel, a software engineer and self-proclaimed “anti-feminist,” claimed to have been ostracized from Silicon Valley’s female tech groups because of her outspoken support for former Google software engineer James Damore. Damore was fired for writing a 10-page internal memo that Google’s CEO said “advanc[ed] harmful gender stereotypes.” She warned against the dangers of the biases Amazon’s Alexa and other home digital assistants could be giving to children, a theme that has occupied the minds of others on the far-right.
As evident by some speakers’ remarks at the panel, at least some of these right-wing figures are breaking their loyalty to free market capitalism to call for government regulations to stop the companies from removing their content when it violates the companies’ terms of service. However, what they see as the unbridled exercise of their opinions is also what has made it necessary for Twitter, Facebook, and Google to update and revise their terms of service in order to combat fake news and protect its users against extremism, hate speech, and online harassment.
Political allies of these far-right personalities are also helping them advance their conservative victimhood narrative. For example, in January, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) seemingly used O’Keefe’s undercover videos against Twitter (apparently ignoring his long history of deceptive editing and pathetic self-own episodes) to make serious accusations against the social media platform of banning conservatives (Cruz spent most of his time during a 2017 Senate hearing questioning social media companies about political bias).
But these social media companies aren’t censoring conservative voices; they are taking action to combat fake news, Russian propaganda, hate speech, and online harassment and not always succeeding. Twitter has vowed to become “more aggressive” in monitoring racism and hate speech in its platform, but has admitted to making mistakes that often continue to enable extremists to smear immigrants and Muslims. YouTube -- which is owned by Google -- is struggling in its campaign to stop allowing content creators who spew hateful views from profiting from the platform, as it has allowed white supremacists to spread their messaging. And it was pressure from right-wing figures that reportedly pushed Facebook to “pull back from human oversight” of its Trending section and “delegate more power to shoddy algorithms,” which could have facilitated the flourishing of fake news and Russian propaganda. Similar right-wing pressure has also pushed Google to end a fact check display in its searches.
While social media companies need to do a better job in crafting and enforcing policies that adequately respond to the challenges that harassment and misinformation present, ceding to the pressure of known harassers and proven misinformers should not be a path they follow.