Any Conservative that has spent any length of time on social media will know that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have decided left-wing biases writes Adam Wordsworth.
Users on Twitter in particular are likely to have experienced the Twitter pile-on, where you make an apparently benign statement, and are subsequently confronted with pages of abuse from the Left, often calling you a fascist for daring to suggest, for example, that work should pay more than benefits.
In the past I was fairly relaxed about this, feeling that in a perverse way it worked to our advantage. For example after the 2015 general election, in which the Conservative Party won a surprise majority, nobody was more shocked than the left-wing Twitterati. They had spent five years firing their views into the Twittersphere, which acted as an echo chamber. In those years, they never came across anybody who disagreed with them, leading them to believe that victory was certain when election day came. The result was devastating and along with it came the realisation that the online world was different from the real world.
However in recent years, things have evolved. In 2015, the problem for conservative users of online platforms was that they were outnumbered by socialists and shouted down when they tried to comment. By 2020, the problem had become that those same online platforms were being managed by woke, left-wing companies. This month, Twitter and Facebook both banned the accounts of former President Donald Trump, apparently for inciting violence in the US Capitol. If this was a genuine attempt to keep the peace, I am sure many of us could sympathise. But when militant movements like Black Lives Matter were wreaking destruction in cities across the globe in 2020, they were supported by those same platforms. Even Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini has a Twitter account which can be used to promote his West-hating, anti-gay agenda.
There are countless examples of Twitter’s determination to silence dissenting voices. In 2018, transsexual blogger Miranda Yardley was banned from the platform for tweeting “Aimee Challenor is a man” (referring to a transwoman), but two months later journalist Sarah Jeong was not given so much as a slap on the wrist for tweeting that “White men are bullshit” and “Dumbass fucking white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.” Facebook now employs over 30,000 people to moderate content online. Some may say this is necessary, but given they are regulating global content, should local norms and customs be accounted for when deciding whether to censor something? Or should people in the rest of the world be forced to conform to the university-campus style social expectations of those employed in Silicon Valley?
Last year many on the right came to realise that they would never get a fair hearing on these platforms. I myself quit Twitter after deliberating the question ‘what is the point?’ and finding no answer forthcoming. The solution for others was to go over the heads of these companies and create a separate platform for conservatives. So Parler was launched.
It was similar in layout to Twitter. Like Twitter, anybody would be welcome. Also like Twitter, it was to have a clear political leaning and the result was exactly as you would expect. The platform became an echo chamber for the alt-right, every bit as insufferable as the one it was intended to supplant. However – and this is where the behaviour of the tech companies becomes really nefarious – this month Google and Apple both delisted Parler from their app stores. In other words, users of iPhones and Android phones could no longer access it. Google and Apple joined Facebook and Twitter in trying to silence anybody who isn’t left-of-centre.
So my thinking around the problems of an online left wing culture have developed over the years. From having left wing users delude themselves in their own echo chambers, to seeing the platforms silence right-of-centre voices, to seeing operating systems banning platforms that are not left-of-centre, the digital world is becoming a frightening place in which speech is not a freedom to be enjoyed. Now I am left asking the question: who should define the rules by which we engage with each other online?
The UK Government is moving forward with its Online Harms Bill, which, as well as aiming to protect people from online abuse and bullying, also seeks to prevent tech companies from banning individuals simply for expressing a viewpoint which others may find offensive. I support this approach. Although I worry that with users having nowhere else to go, the tech companies could obfuscate or work around the spirit of this legislation, knowing full well that they are the ones who are really in control. As a passionate supporter of markets, I would like to be able to encourage everybody to vote with their feet and show these companies that we do not accept their regulation of our content. But to say that would be hypocritical. I own an iPhone and have no intention of changing it. But maybe, as these markets become more mature and more players enter into them, people will be able to choose search engines, operating systems and social media platforms that better reflect their views or else are depoliticised altogether. That possibility is the one glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak digital outlook.
Adam Wordsworth is a former Police Officer and caseworker in the House of Commons.