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Big Tech’s Kafkaesque Approach to Censorship


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Source: The Intercept

The politics morning show “Rising,” produced by The Hill and which I currently co-host, was suspended by YouTube on Thursday for allegedly violating the platform’s rules around election misinformation. Two infractions were cited: First, the outlet posted the full video of former President Donald Trump’s recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on its page. The speech, of course, was chock full of craziness. Second, “Rising” played a minutelong clip of Trump’s commentary on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which included the claim that none of it would have happened if not for a “rigged election.”

“As an American, I’m angry about it and I’m saddened by it, and it all happened because of a rigged election. This would have never happened,” Trump says in the clip, which you can watch here.

The crime, we learned, that got the show suspended for seven days from its platform was that neither I nor my co-host, Robby Soave, paused to solemnly inform our viewers that Trump’s phrase — “a rigged election” — referred to his ongoing claim that the election was stolen from him in 2020 and that this claim is false.

We did scrutinize Trump’s claims. Along with a guest, The Federalist’s Emily Jashinsky, we discussed a theory floated by my Intercept colleague Murtaza Hussain that Trump is such a “madman” of such “aggressive unpredictability” that perhaps that instability did have some deterrent effect.

Later in the segment, we discussed the New York district attorney’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for prosecuting Trump over bank fraud. I argued that whatever the outcome, “If you ask the public, do you think Donald Trump would have inflated his property values when trying to get loans and deflated his property values when paying his taxes, you’d probably get 100 percent of people being like, yes,” I suggested.

The notion that any viewer came away from watching that segment with the mistaken idea that Trump — whom we described as a fraudster and “an actual madman” — had indeed won the election and that it had been stolen from him can’t be taken seriously. It’s absurd, and The Hill is appealing the decision, so far with no success. But YouTube’s approach reflects a broad problem with Big Tech’s approach to censorship: It has nothing but contempt for the viewer. If we had paused to note that Trump’s gripe about his election loss was unfounded, what voter who previously believed that claim would be convinced by my simple rejection of it? And who was the person to begin with who was not previously aware that Trump disputes the election outcome? It might possibly be the most known political fact in America.

De-platforming any mention of a “rigged election” hasn’t done anything to slow the theory down. Since YouTube and other platforms cracked down on Trump’s election fraud nonsense in late 2020, the belief that the election was rigged has only grown, particularly among Republicans. And the policy has actually stifled a rational response. As Soave pointed out in Reason, “Not only does YouTube punish channels that spread misinformation, but in many cases, it also punishes channels that report on the spread of misinformation.”

Last year YouTube came down hard on a wide swath of progressive content creators who had mentioned Trump’s claims in order to debunk them. The independent outlet Status Coup, which captured some of the most revealing footage of the January 6 riot at the Capitol — photojournalist Jon Farina gave a riveting interview to our podcast Deconstructed that evening — licensed much of that footage to cable and network news outlets but was suspended for posting it on its own channel. Covering the event, Status Coup was told, was tantamount to “advancing false claims of election fraud.” And so the left was disincentivized from talking at all on YouTube — a major source of news particularly for young people — about the election or about the January 6 assault, while the right has moved off into other ecosystems.

YouTube created the very mess it now claims its new policies are aimed at cleaning up.

As an aside, news outlets that post and house raw feeds of political events, like C-SPAN, are to me as a reporter invaluable. Long before I co-hosted “Rising,” I found The Hill’s prolific posting of speeches and press conferences immensely useful. That YouTube wants to end that in order to spare fragile minds from the direct words of politicians is a tragedy for the public, for journalism, and for future historians. (By its own rules, it ought to de-platform C-SPAN’s channel, but that’s probably too idiotic even for YouTube. Or maybe not.)

YouTube’s preening is also maddeningly hypocritical. To a quite significant degree, YouTube created the very mess it now claims its new policies are aimed at cleaning up. In the early days of the platform, YouTube did all it could to funnel viewers to “Loose Change,” the film arguing that 9/11 was an inside job, helping make it a phenomenally influential take. Conspiracy garbage — on Covid-19 vaccines, Davos, flat Earth — is favored content by YouTube to this day, because it engages viewers for hours on end. The most reliable way to draw viewers in the politics space over the past year has been to play footsie with all manner of vaccine-related conspiracies, and the pull of the algorithm has drawn entire swaths of commentators into its maw.

YouTube pretends not to like this, and to have rules about it, and yet it programs its algorithm to actively encourage people to tiptoe right up to that line — but don’t tell creators where exactly that line is — and when one crosses it, they get hit with a sniper round from a moderator. The carcass becomes a warning to other hosts — but a warning of what? Of who’s in charge.

Moderation is reasonable as a principle. If YouTube doesn’t want, say, porn on its site, nobody has a constitutional right to post porn there. If YouTube was interested in some sort of moderation that was intended to discourage flagrant lies from getting a boost from the algorithm — and that’s the key; again, it’s discussed as a black-and-white speech debate, but it’s largely about boost and suppression — there are ways it can do this. But it’s not.

YouTube is obviously failing at its stated goal of producing reliable, accurate, informed content, but not because it doesn’t know how to do it. It doesn’t know how to do it and also maximize profits — all of which is more evidence that its flamboyant moderation decisions are all political posturing to fend off pressure for regulation. YouTube has long wanted the crazy stuff, because that’s what pays the bills, and as a result it’s played a role in the crazy-making of our politics.

Now I get the sense — and with an opaque algorithm, that’s all you can have — that YouTube is done with political content. It’s more trouble than it’s worth. A platform fueled by gamers and reaction videos is less likely to fuel a ransacking of the Capitol — and less likely to produce the real concern, a corporate-advertising exodus — and just as able to bring in money. The conservative movement has already accepted this reality and is now building rival video platforms to host its content, further polarizing politics. The left, though, has no serious backup plan, only calls for Big Tech to “do more.”

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