PEOPLE MUST RECOGNIZE
THAT CENSORSHIP IS REAL
A dear friend, someone with whom I go way back, and who comments frequently on my blog posts, recently expressed skepticism about my remarks addressing online censorship.
He’s a very imaginative writer himself, whose creativity I respect (and with whom I’ve collaborated in the past). But we have — How shall I put it? — different worldviews. And so he dismissed my concerns as a “food fight,” and asked, “Who is banning books?”
I understand that the media which this friend (and many other people) follow aren’t inclined to pay close attention to the cancelling of works by rightward thinkers. So I shouldn’t assume that everybody is aware of the censorship issue, even though it’s certainly not made up.
It’s also not new. Interference from social network gatekeepers first became apparent during the Obama years. A scan of my clip file turns up a 2013 complaint by American-Israeli journalist Ruthie Blum about Facebook blocking a column she wrote in Israel Hayom, and then her subsequent barring from the net.
She was puzzled by these actions…
“Since global politics is what I write about — with an emphasis on the defense of Israel and criticism of its detractors — this is obviously what dominates my Facebook page….” she wrote in the Observer.
Blum knew she hadn’t transgressed Facebook’s rules about violence, bullying, graphic content, or other stated restrictions, so…
“What, then, could possibly be the reason for my suspension?”
A bit of digging revealed that Facebook had taken its rather extreme action in response to a reader complaint, presumably a protest from someone who objected to Blum’s championing of Israel. This clearly suggested that Facebook management was either responding to ideological pressure or acting on political motives of their own.
Around that same time, Facebook got into scuffles with a pair of conservative blogs, Chicks on the Right and the then-active Sarah Palin fan page, Barracuda Brigade for Our American Girl! In the second instance, suspensions were issued not for anything the blog administrators had posted, but for comments from followers.
Those episodes were straws in the wind, hints of what was to come. In 2015 the tech site Gizmodo ran an exposé quoting former Facebook staffers who claimed that the net routinely…
“prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential [“Trending”] section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.”
Fast-forward to more recent times when social networks and online vendors have adopted openly aggressive cancelling policies for books, media, and even non-literary products identified with conservative and / or religious viewpoints.
A report in National Catholic Register this past February spotlighted several books by Catholic authors that have run afoul of social media and been blocked…
“Carrie Gress’ The Anti-Mary Exposed was pulled from a Catholic gift shop’s Instagram and Facebook accounts in January — nearly a year after it was first posted — after being flagged as an ‘adult product.’
“TAN’s Facebook ads promoting Kimberly Cook’s Motherhood Redeemed and Paul Kengor’s The Devil and Karl Marx were recently pulled down, in the former’s case because of an alleged violation of the social-media platform’s ‘Sensational Content Policy’ and the latter because of Facebook’s apparent policy to limit ads related to politics during the general elections, which were held months ago.
“Perhaps most egregious of all, ads have also been pulled for Regina Doman’s Stations of the Cross, on the basis that the book’s cartoonized, non-gory depiction of the Crucifixion — perhaps the most iconic and widespread image in world history — contained ‘shocking, sensational, inflammatory or excessively violent content.’”
All of this is of a piece with the banning by Amazon of books by the late Catholic psychotherapist, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi (who wrote extensively on homosexuality and gender issues), along with the similar delisting of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, by journalist Abigail Shrier, and When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment by Ryan Anderson of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. (Interestingly, these occurred just as the so-called “Equality Act” was being debated in Congress.)
Catholic and conservative online media have come under attack as well. Twitter suspended the account of Ignatius Press’ Catholic World Report after posting of a Catholic News Agency item that described Dr. Rachel Levine, Secretary of Health and Human Services, as…
“a biological man identifying as a transgender woman.”
Addressing the TG phenomenon was also the undoing of John Zmirak, senior editor at The Stream, and author of the Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. After a number of suspensions over election comments, Zmirak was expelled from Twitter for questioning the pressure being put on gender-conflicted young people to take hormone blocking drugs as part of transition procedures. He was unrepentant, however, observing in a follow-up article…
“Given how few people naturally develop gender dysphoria … and how much money is behind encouraging their delusions and imposing them on us all, the trans cause may be the best-funded evil cause, per capita, on earth.”
A video of Zmirak’s parody song, “Biden, Did You Know?” was also yanked from YouTube.
Similarly, Prager University, a media service founded by talk show host Dennis Prager, which produces and distributes conservative and religion-focused informational videos, is engaged in an ongoing battle to maintain its online presence. It’s been tagged as a “fake news” outlet — as has the Christian humor site, Babylon Bee, purveyor of wildly clever satirical memes and headlines.
And who can forget the notorious de-platforming of Parler, the proposed social network planned as a free-speech alternative to Twitter. It was crushed by Apple (maker of the outstanding computers to which I’m so loyal).
It’s clear that gender is a hot button for Big Tech, as is anything to do with the last election. The so-called “fact checkers” have been in a frenzy over posts questioning the validity of Joe Biden’s alleged win (indeed, they should have plenty to occupy their time, as evidence of election irregularity continues leaking out). But words and images associated with Christianity can trigger censorship as well, sometimes inexplicably.
One of the strangest cancellings was that of Saintly Heart, a small marketer of Catholic-themed toys. The Facebook-owned social network, Instagram, flagged Saintly Heart’s figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe for being “overtly sexualized.”
Perhaps the craziest such incident didn’t even involve a commercial product. Artist Gaye Frances Willard had painted a Christmas image of Santa Claus kneeling by the manger bed of the Baby Jesus. She distributed prints of the painting to friends, and someone posted it on Facebook, which blocked it for “violent content.”
It would be easy to dismiss such quirky happenings as algorithmic anomalies. I’m sure the programming that tells those little robotic spiders what to search for among all the zeros and ones of computer code can experience the occasional hiccup.
But censorship of books and media suggest something intentional. There’s a pattern evident in the fact that so many incidents happen on the political and religious right.
Are books that extol the delights of gender fluidity being censored? Do creators of media praising the Biden Administration, trashing Donald Trump, or decrying “white supremacy” need to worry about the inquisitors of Silicon Valley?
It’s mildly amusing that defenders of Big Tech always frame their arguments as matters of free-market principle…
These companies are private entities, their apologists will insist. They have the right to decide which products they’ll carry and which markets they wish to serve.
Well, that’s true — up to a point. And the point was delineated by the Civil Rights Movement, along with the legislation that came in response to it. Businesses that wished to deny service to Black people found out that their free-market rights were circumscribed by the mandate of public accommodation.
And then there’s the question of monopoly practices, which are limited by the concept of restraint of trade. Amazon currently accounts for some 80 percent of the commerce in books. Facebook and the other social networks dominate business communication, and drive traffic in news readership and information consumption.
Under such conditions, can society really permit these private entities to decide what gets said and who gets to say it? What if phone companies cut you off whenever you discussed some topic to which they objected?
Censorship is not a simple issue, and there are no easy answers to the complexities it presents. For instance, the social networks face legitimate questions about how to address pornography, criminal solicitation, terrorism, and other valid concerns in the online world.
But be assured: Big Tech’s challenge to free expression is real. I can’t say with absolute certainty that it always affects only conservative authors or religious books and products, but there’s a definite skew. And while the number of cancelling incidents may be modest — as yet — the trajectory is clear.
My old writer friend really must examine this problem honestly. It’s only getting bigger and becoming more urgent.
Someday the censors might come after the stuff he writes.
If there’s a certain kind of perverse honor in being censored by Big Tech, Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, also enjoys the distinction of being the focus of an actual book-burning campaign. Unfortunately, that campaign is being waged in one those places where we would hope the spirit of free inquiry might prevail, a university campus.
Last November, one Grace Lavery, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, issued a call for stealing and burning Shrier’s book.
It’s not surprising that Lavery, a self-described “transgender woman,” took special umbrage at a book about transgenderism. But there’s a certain irony in the fact that it was at Berkeley that the famous 1960s Free Speech Movement got its start.
Concerned about clarity, as an academic would be, Lavery posted this tweet…
To minimize the possibility of injury, this bit of advice was appended…
And no doubt Lavery wished to ease reservations people might have about book burning. After all, the Nazis did give this practice a rather bad name.
National Religious Broadcasters has compiled a timeline noting instances of online viewpoint censorship going back to 2010…
Last fall Catholic writer Jonathan Liedl surveyed Big Tech’s threat to conservative and religious free expression, especially in the area of pro-life advocacy. Prompted by such incidents as Facebook’s suppression of ads by the Susan B. Anthony List criticizing Joe Biden’s abortion support, Liedl offered some statistics that showed tech folks are overwhelmingly Progressive and pro-abortion. Writing in National Catholic Register, he raised the possibility of attacking bias on anti-trust grounds…
There’s one voice among Big Tech leaders speaking out against censorship, that of Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and Space X. Musk has expressed his concern on several occasions, including after the removal of Parler, when he tweeted…
“A lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech.”
The Daily Wire reviewed some of Musk’s statements…
This meme suggests that the future of free speech may lie in reverting to an older technology…