10 August 2018

Is cyberspace public space?

One doesn’t have to be a fan of Alex Jones and InfoWars (I certainly am not, for multiple reasons) to be somewhat disturbed by his treatment at the hands of major social media platforms like Facebook, Spotify and YouTube. Figures on both sides of the spectrum of American political thought, from Glenn Greenwald and Jimmy Dore on the left to Matt Drudge and Ted Cruz on the right, have criticised the platforms for their selective, opaque and seemingly politically-motivated uses of community-standards policies.

Personally, I will cop to some misgivings here, too, but it isn’t because I’m a free-speech absolutist: I am no such thing. I have been saying for a long time that there are dangerous and harmful forms of speech and that some of these forms should be curtailed, whether by law or by a reinvigorated honour culture. But it strikes me that censorship per se isn’t even the most interesting or salient point of l’affaire Jones. We really ought to be asking ourselves the question: what is the nature of our social media ‘reality’, of our online ‘space’? Who polices it, and to which ends? Looking into my own vexation and misgivings at the corporate no-platforming of InfoWars carefully, I find I can unfold it in this way.

The first is that the Internet is a utility which has been monopolised at several points by for-profit rentiers. This isn’t simply a matter of net neutrality – a policy which has been supported by several of the same corporations now booting InfoWars. No, this is a much more involved problem. Large portions of the Internet – a significant percentage of the content – is controlled by these corporations. The Internet, and social media platforms in particular, are popularly understood to be public space; indeed, the Internet essentially started as a public works project. However, we have seen that the process for deciding what community standards should be upheld and how, is not directly accountable to public authorities but instead to corporate ones. Much of the Internet space we frequent is, essentially, privatised. (Ironically, if Jones and InfoWars were being ideologically-consistent, they would welcome this state-of-affairs – after all, this is the free market at work.) This brings me to my second point.

This comparison will likely offend some people, but you know what? Good! This corporate shucking of InfoWars reminds me a great deal of the NFL’s shucking of their own players’ anthem protests. To be clear, I’m not positing any kind of moral equivalence between Kaepernick and Jones. Kaepernick, unlike Jones, gives back to the community and also, unlike Jones, does not target and endanger specific people with his exercised right of free speech. What is comparable between the two is that both men understood themselves to be exercising their legally-protected right of political speech in a public forum, whereas that wasn’t really the case.

I can understand why people were offended by Kaepernick’s protests – football games are public, civic events, and the anthem plays a significant rôle there. However, those who objected to Kaepernick’s protests, I feel actually misunderstood the venue as much as he did. What’s really galling about Kaepernick’s and other protesters’ treatment by the NFL, is that they were in essence scolded for a lack of civic feeling, by an organisation which makes massive amounts of profit by extorting taxpayers in various cities to subsidise infrastructure which is essentially private property. It’s morally grotesque. And I think a similar feeling applies to the corporations which operate spaces which look and function as public, but which legally aren’t.

Getting back to the question of Facebook censorship, I think what we are looking at is the partial deflation of the utopian expectations of the corporate masters themselves. Facebook was founded on a utopian belief (as, indeed, was Google) that greater flows and exchanges of information would bring us closer together as people, would unite us in solidarity in ways hitherto unheard of, would ignite passions for social activism as yet unseen. Call it the ‘Arab Spring thesis’. As we have seen, however, and should have expected, these utopian expectations went unmet. Being saturated with information, freely exchangeable, has not brought us closer together or deepened our understanding of each other across cultural, social or political lines; if anything, it has driven us further apart. What we are seeing from Facebook, YouTube and Spotify now with regards to InfoWars may be thought of as an acknowledgement of a Thermidorian reaction to Internet utopianism. Not all information is good; not all information deserves to be spread to as broad an audience as possible. The problem, however, is and always will be this: whom do we let decide what information is ‘good’ and which is ‘bad’? (That chuckling you’re hearing right now? It’s coming from Fang Binxing’s laptop.)

Ultimately, I feel that both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ look at this issue the wrong way. Personally, I believe the left is right that the corporate takeover of the Internet ought to disturb us – and not just the issue of net neutrality, which is really addressing only a part of the problem. What is more to the point is that we treat the Internet as though it really has become a public space, but it is one dominated by interests that keep themselves opaque to us while at the same time harvesting our personal information to keep up their advertisement-driven profit margins. There’s a fundamental asymmetry between the users and gatekeepers that renders these popular discussions about ‘free speech’ on the Internet somewhat moot.

On the other hand, though, the free-speech absolutists on both left and right are wrong. Public space does not and should not automatically mean ‘anything-goes’. What few public spaces we have left have – and always have had – strict rules and less-formal norms to enforce or encourage good behaviour: after all, we don’t like our parks littered with trash and dog turds. If even the current masters and utopian ‘thought-leaders’ have decided that not all information is good and deserves to be spread, then we (and that is a democratic and inclusive ‘we’) have some deep and serious thinking to do about how we decide which information is fit to see, and which isn’t.

1 comment:

  1. Imagining a cleavage between state and corporate power is a mistake. These days, the Western state no longer undertakes propaganda itself, but outsources this role to big business. So when big tech acts to close down certain voices, this is simply part of its designated role within the neoliberal/neocon Borg.