(May 9, 2022 / JNS) The job of defenders of democracy would be easier if opponents of free speech never sought to disguise their efforts by portraying their goal as the preservation of the very ideals that they are suborning. It’s a lot harder to recognize the nature of the threat when those who seek to silence dissent say they are doing it for our own good because those guilty of wrongthink are bad people.
It’s even worse when a group whose mission is to fight anti-Semitism, like the Anti-Defamation League, joins in this effort. And it creates a genuine moral quandary when some of those whom the ADL may be targeting are outlets that deserve strong criticism. That prospect is raised by the decision of PayPal, which contracted with the ADL last year to advise it about which groups should be labeled as “extremists” and prevented from making use of their services, to demonetize two anti-Israel publications. But even if we deplore some of what is published in websites like Consortium and Mint Press, which combine skepticism about government censorship and support for critics of national security secrecy like Julian Assange with left-wing anti-Zionist invective, the idea that a Jewish agency might be involved in censoring them is profoundly troubling.
To date, ADL has not commented on what exactly it is doing with the fintech company. But the implications of PayPal’s decisions clearly reflect the Jewish group’s push in recent years to support Internet censorship in the name of silencing extremists. In the current context of Big Tech and Biden administration efforts to shut down their critics, the ADL’s switch from its former stance as a nonpartisan watchdog group to that of Democratic Party auxiliary places this controversy in an even more troublesome context.
In the last two years, the challenge to American democracy from Big Tech efforts to censor minority views became clear. The efforts of social-media giants like Facebook and Twitter to silence views that ran contrary to the political and ideological beliefs of the oligarchs of Silicon Valley and their woke staffers became obvious during the 2020 presidential campaign, and then deepened during the coronavirus pandemic and the first year of the Biden administration.
A handful of people now control not just large media outlets but the virtual public square itself. A large percentage of Americans get their news from social media or from platforms controlled by Amazon or Google. That makes the willingness of these companies to put their fingers on the scale and tilt coverage—even to the point of shutting down stories that they thought were damaging to their political interests, like those that pointed to corruption in the family of the Democratic presidential candidate—a serious blow to the democratic process.
Added to that is the apparent interest of the federal government in playing the same game. With the U.S. Department of Homeland Security creating a Disinformation Governance Board that will presumably identify and shut down sources it deems unfit for public consumption, the notion of state censorship has moved from a theoretical threat to a clear and present danger. The person tapped by Biden to run this board, Nina Jankowicz, was herself someone who has spread disinformation. The fact that she helped bolster the Russia collusion hoax, the discredited myth that Hunter Biden’s laptop was part of a plot hatched in Moscow and the idea that opponents of critical race theory are disinformers makes it appear as if the administration’s priority is partisan warfare, not alleged disinformation.
The idea of a government agency that would be a real-life version of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 is appalling in and of itself. But what’s truly insidious about it is that it is being done in defense of democracy, when the essence of a free country is the ability of citizens to think and say what they like, whether or not the government agrees with them.
That brings us back to the ADL. Last summer, the full extent of its involvement in efforts by Big Tech firms to limit freedom of expression became known. The group worked with Google to create software that would divert Internet users from extremist sites to those it deemed to be okay. But it turned out that at least one of those sites that it had sent readers to was run by a left-wing anarchist with some rather disturbing views.
One of the problems with all of this is that there is no transparency about the algorithms being used by Google, PayPal or the ADL to determine the bad guys that must be censored. We do know, however, that one of the criteria the ADL used for determining whether someone was searching for a hate site was typing in the words “the truth about Black Lives Matter.” That means that the group’s desire to ferret out right-wing disinformers despised by their Biden administration allies could easily lead to them targeting those who are actually opposed to Jew-hatred.
No doubt, there are some in the pro-Israel community who won’t care about PayPal’s targeting of Consortium and Mint Press. They have both published a lot of misinformed and biased articles about Israel, some of which cross over into anti-Semitism.
Yet while we might well wish the publishers of such tripe ill, it is quite another thing to advocate for their censorship.
Some might argue, as actor Sacha Baron Cohen did about Facebook’s refusal to censor all anti-Semitic posts, that as a private company, PayPal can and should do as it likes. But these Internet giants are not small shops. Their near-monopoly on public discourse not only gives them more power than any media mogul of the past ever dreamed of but also makes it the moral equivalent of what the law deems a common carrier—a commercial enterprise that serves the general public and that is obligated to take everyone’s business unless the goods are dangerous.
Hate speech can indeed be considered a danger. Still, once you get into the business of censoring free expression, the temptation to label anything you disagree with or find offensive as beyond the pale is too great. Democracies thrive on public discourse and die when one faction or party seizes control of speech. That means we are obligated to tolerate even those views which we find offensive—like smears of Israel—if we are to remain a free nation.
The ADL, along with its Big Tech and Biden administration allies, say they can be trusted to differentiate between the merely offensive and actual terrorists who are plotting violence. However, if there is anything we’ve learned in the last two years, it’s that they’ve proven that they will use this awesome power to advance their political interests and seek to label political foes as not merely wrong but criminals who deserve to be deprived of their rights.
Although there is some hope that Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter will start the pendulum swinging back in favor of free speech, Big Tech companies cannot be allowed to go on practicing political censorship. The administration’s steps toward authorizing censorship must also be halted.
Equally as important, no Jewish agency should be involved in any way with censorship. It ought to be painfully obvious to the ADL that the same forces with which it is currently allied are also supporters of intersectional ideology that grants a permission slip to anti-Semitism. That means that Silicon Valley censors and our new Ministry of Truth bureaucrats might someday be just as quick to silence pro-Israel voices in the name of halting so-called disinformation as they would be right-wingers or critics of COVID policies or critical race theory. The Jewish community’s future doesn’t depend on censoring conservatives or on silencing others whose views we might detest. Rather than cheering on ADL’s involvement in this disreputable effort, its supporters and donors need to understand that its role in Internet censorship is undermining democracy and Jewish security, not bolstering it.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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