The true face of the authoritarian threat

The ADL’s boycott of Facebook over its refusal to censor political ads sounds high-minded but, like Google’s suppression of conservatives, it’s a threat to free speech.

Googleplex Headquarters, San Jose, Calif. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Googleplex Headquarters, San Jose, Calif. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

When a real threat arises against American democracy, where will it come from?

To many Americans, and especially the majority of American Jews who lean to the left politically, the answer is clear. In the past few years, fears of incipient authoritarianism have become a staple of liberal commentary about the administration of President Donald Trump. The president has fed those promoting this argument some ammunition with his bullying style and willingness to engage in over-the-top attacks on his foes by, for example, calling journalists who oppose him “the enemy of the people.”

But for all of the hysteria and scare-mongering about the Trump presidency, American liberty remains intact and his opponents remain free to dominate most of the media, not to mention the streets of our major cities.

What if the real threat to our liberties came not in the form of a blustering conservative, but from liberals spouting high-minded rhetoric about the need to combat hate?

That troubling scenario inched closer to reality yesterday with two developments that ought to concern everyone, no matter where they place themselves on the political spectrum.

The first was the willingness of Google—the most dominant force in communications in the 21st century—to be pushed into actions aimed at shutting down two conservative websites because they were falsely accused of promoting hate. The second involved a push by a group of liberal organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP, to boycott Facebook. Their goal is to force the social-media giant to institute censorship of ads that post on the site, including those of political candidates, parties and issue-advocacy groups.

The ADL claims that it’s defending society from bad people who post bad things and misleading information, including hate that could be directed at Jews, blacks and others. And if the only kind of posts or ads that were at risk of being deleted or refused by Facebook were those of neo-Nazis, its position might be defensible.

But that isn’t the case.

The greater part of all the material that would be censored isn’t just the pure hatred of extremists who would, in a pre-Internet era, have their views confined to the fever swamps of the far-right or the far-left, where most people would never encounter them. At stake here are political ads from candidates, some of whom you might detest or think misleading, and some you might consider truthful.

In an era of hyper-partisanship, where both left and right think that everything the other side says is a lie, who could possibly be trusted to do that fairly? Surely, not Facebook and its largely liberal oversight board. This problem is compounded by the development of two different sets of media, as well as the silos that social media allows us to create in order to shield ourselves from views that contradict our pre-existing beliefs and prejudices.

Facebook has rightly refused these requests on the ground that it cannot be expected to take sides on such an issue in an election year, specifically since the Democrats support ending political ads while the GOP opposes the measure.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt says it’s wrong that Facebook allows hate into our homes. But the main impact of his advocacy will be to enable it to follow the same game plan as Twitter, whose biased “fact checking” has targeted conservative voices, including the president, while giving a pass to liberals, whose tweets can also be challenged as being false or misleading.

Civil-rights groups used to understand that the best guarantee for the defense of liberty was to protect free speech, even when it came from people they opposed. But now groups like the ADL are on a crusade to shut down speech and, based on the records of social-media companies and their left-leaning algorithms, the most likely victims are conservative voices, including Jews like Dennis Prager or Ben Shapiro, whose widely shared posts infuriate their opponents.

As bad as the ADL’s efforts to censor Facebook in the name of freedom are the successful efforts of some to use Google to shut down or cripple other conservatives.

This week, NBC News helped push Google to block two conservative publications from its advertiser platform.

This is no small matter. Google dominates the information highway of the web in a way that it gives it more power over what people see and read than any government. It is also the source of most ad revenue for websites, making it absolutely essential to the survival of publications at a time when print is disappearing, along with the advertisers that once made newspapers and magazines profitable.

To ban a publication from Google ads can doom it to extinction. And that’s exactly what Google is trying to do by singling out The Federalist, an American conservative news and opinion site, as well as ZeroHedge, a European website. The complaint against both is that their unmoderated comments sections show hateful statements, specifically attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement.

My work has been published many times in The Federalist in recent years and I can testify that the claim that it is a “far-right” or “hate” site is simply untrue. It publishes a broad range of conservative opinion, including many articles that are supportive of Israel and call out anti-Semitism. Many of those who comment on articles do hold views that I (and many others) consider crazy or extreme. But the same can be said of the comments published by The New York Times that are posted to their articles, especially those relating to Israel or Jewish interests, and even those that are actually moderated by Times personnel.

In order to keep getting the ad revenue it needs, The Federalist has been forced to close the comments section, essentially silencing its readers. How is that consistent with democracy?

It’s also deeply hypocritical since the comments on YouTube videos—a site wholly owned by Google—are just as likely to contain insulting, extreme or downright crazy language as anything written by a Federalist reader. Google and the social-media companies have been exempted for accountability for what they publish by federal law, something that is not true of ordinary publications like The Federalist or JNS.

What this means is that the largest media company in the world with virtually untrammeled power over information is essentially demonetizing publications that are willing to publish views critical of the BLM movement. And the ADL and others are also seeking to ensure that Facebook joins Twitter in also engaging in censorship.

You may agree with ADL about wanting to silence Nazis. And you may cheer Google for trying to shut down conservatives because you disagree with them or think they are a blight on public discourse.

However, if Google is allowed to get away with censoring political speech in this manner and Facebook does the same, then no one, including liberals, Jewish organizations and those that speak up for minorities, is safe from being treated in the same manner. Black Lives Matter represents both an anodyne idea that is an unchallenged truth since, of course, black lives do matter, but also a raft of radical views about America being an incorrigibly racist nation and the lie that Israel is an apartheid state. But if it or its members can’t be questioned, then everyone’s freedom of speech is in peril.

You may think Trump’s bluster causes you to worry about democracy. But if you want real evidence of creeping tyranny, you need look no further than the operations of some of the world’s most powerful companies—and the high-minded liberals pushing them towards more censorship—who have more to say about what views you are exposed to than any president could dream of having. As it turns out, when authoritarianism arrives, it may come disguised as opposition to hate and falsehoods. Yet it will be just as dangerous as the extremists who are less guarded about their desire to silence you.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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