A sizable majority of American adults say—when polled—that social media organizations “censor” political viewpoints:
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in June finds that roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults say it is very (37%) or somewhat (36%) likely that social media sites intentionally censor political viewpoints that they find objectionable. Just 25% believe this is not likely the case.
At this point, of course, it’s hard to see how this is even debatable. While “censor” is perhaps not the most accurate term to use here—given the word’s connotations of state intervention—it is apparent that social media firms, at the very least, limit discussion and the reach of certain political viewpoints by banning certain users. These firms also openly admit to biasing readers against certain content through the use of “fact checkers.” Anecdotal evidence also strongly suggests that these social media firms also engage in tactics like “shadow banning,” which hides certain posts and content from certain users.
This is no haphazard or “neutral” bias, either. It is clear that the user bans and “fact checking” warnings against certain posts are designed to fall most often on groups that could be described as “conservative,” or “libertarian,” or which advocate in favor of Donald Trump and his allies.
As far as media companies go, this is just par for the course. What is perhaps so unusual in this case is that so many self-identified conservatives and libertarians seem surprised that things turned out this way.
This may be due to the fact that many continue to believe the false notion that social media companies are a sort of “public utility.” The social media companies themselves promote this myth and like to give the impression that they are open forums facilitating open communication. In reality, the firms are essentially just media companies like CNN, NBC, or the New York Times. Like ordinary media companies they modify and promote content to reflect the firm’s preferences. This is clear every time a social media company intervenes to modify “trending topics” lists, or remove content altogether. Consequently, the only meaningful difference between standard media companies and social media companies is that social media firms don’t produce their own content like ABC News or the Washington Post do. Rather, social media companies have convinced their users to produce all the content. The social media companies then reap the rewards in terms of selling personal information to advertisers and curating user-produced content to suit the companies’ own vision and needs.
Ultimately, the lesson to be learned here is that anyone who holds opinions outside a center-left or far left narrative should expect about as much “fairness” from social media firms as one might expect from CNN or NBC News. In other words, we should expect social media firms to ignore and marginalize the very same opinions and groups that have been ignored and marginalized by established media companies for decades.
This also means that organizations, writers, and publishers of these verboten opinions must do what they’ve always done: create their own publications and find effective methods of disseminating their content outside the control of establishment gatekeepers.
A Brief History of Media Bias
More seasoned observers of media behavior, of course, aren’t surprised or shocked when they hear that social media companies have taken steps to constrain the parameters of acceptable debate or silence certain voices.
The establishment media, its reporters, and its editors have viewed this kind of “censorship” as both necessary and laudable since at least the early twentieth century. It was at that time that American progressives began to make headway with the idea that journalists should act as gatekeepers of truth and that “the press” should determine for itself what it was that people ought to be allowed to read and know.
As I noted last year, this idea was promoted especially forcefully in Walter Lippmann’s 1922 book Public Opinion. Lippmann contended that ordinary people are incapable of reading about events from diverse sources and making up their own minds. Rather, it was necessary for experts to provide only “controlled reporting and objective analysis.”
But how is this “objective analysis” to be achieved? The answer, according to Lippman, lies in making journalism more scientific, and in making facts “fixed, objectified, measured, [and] named.”
Thus was born the idea of the “objective” journalist who was above bias and who communicated to the public the only truth. Naturally, this implies that all “untrue” narratives must therefore be silenced.
[RELATED: “‘Objective Journalism’ Has Always Been a Myth” by Ryan McMaken]
In reality, of course, the journalists and editors themselves, like all human beings, brought with them their own biases and partisan sympathies. As the twentieth century progressed, journalism schools at colleges and universities cemented certain biases among those who went to work for major media companies. By midcentury, changes in the technological and media landscape narrowed the number of media outlets and the public became increasingly dependent on fewer and fewer editors and journalists at a shrinking number of companies. As Bruce Thornton has explained at the Hoover Institution:
The second development that increased the malign partisan influence of the media in the postwar period was the rise of television and the decline in the number of newspapers. With that, there were fewer and fewer information sources from which readers could chose, giving the three television networks and the big metropolitan papers, especially the New York Times, inordinate unchallenged power over public information. At the same time, those seeking alternative points of view had fewer and fewer daily papers, while the ones that remained were dependent on a few news services such as the Associated Press, which represents one point of view. To speak in Madisonian terms, one media faction had now expanded to the point that it crowded out and marginalized alternative points of view.
Creating Alternatives to the Establishment Media
This transformation did not go unnoticed. By the 1940s, it was increasingly clear that a distinction had arisen between the “establishment” media and what would come to be known as “alternative media.” As Moira Weigel noted in her review of Claire Potter’s book on alternative media, Political Junkies:
Potter does not define precisely what she means by “alternative media.” But the term really only makes sense in opposition to the “mainstream” or mass media that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century, in the form of national newspapers and magazines, Hollywood film studios, and radio and television stations. These outlets grew up with new standards for objective reporting and new federal agencies and laws that forbade broadcasters from engaging in open partisanship. In 1927, Congress passed the Radio Act, requiring broadcasters to give political candidates equal opportunities to present their views. In 1949, the expanded Federal Communications Commission (created partly in response to the popularity of the antisemitic radio star Father Coughlin) established the “Fairness Doctrine,” requiring broadcasters of all kinds to provide multiple points of view on controversial issues. As more Americans tuned in, a carefully regulated Cold War media pushed them toward what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. famously named “the vital center.”
Although the new regulatory regime was allegedly devoted to “fairness,” more adroit observers understood that fairness was really just whatever the major media companies defined as “mainstream” while everything else came to be defined as beyond the pale of civilized discussion.
Naturally, many conservative groups opposed to the “center”—which in the mid-twentieth century really meant a center-left bent reflecting the views of midcentury university professors and other “experts” like Schlesinger himself—understood that the new fairness excluded their ideas.
By the 1940s, “conservative” groups—i.e., pretty much anyone opposed to the New Deal and its legacy—realized they needed to found their own organizations. As noted by Nicole Hemmer at The Atlantic:
The idea of “fair and balanced” partisan media has its roots in the 1940s and 1950s. Human Events, the right-wing newsweekly founded in 1944, was dedicated to publishing the “facts” other outlets overlooked.
This “alternative media” included other publications, many of which came out of the “Old Right,” such as the inimitable Frank Chodorov’s publication analysis, founded in 1944. Chodorov described it as “an individualistic publication—the only one of its kind in America,” and he would go on to edit another new alternative magazine called The Freeman, founded in 1954.
Rightist organizations like these, however, were not the only ones in the alternative media landscape. Weigel notes that independent journalists on the left were also objecting to the mainstream view being promoted by major outlets like the New York Times. Specifically, the work of left-wing journalist Izzy Stone became influential through his acolyte Seymour Hersh:
Hersh first encountered Stone’s work in 1964. At the time, Hersh was working at the Associated Press; by 1966, he and Stone had become friends. Hersh would later recall that Stone helped him recognize how the mainstream media marginalized journalists who dared to embarrass the government, and strengthened his conviction that the public had a right to information that both the media and government were trying to keep from them.
These organizations became all the more solidified in this belief when it became apparent that the federal government was willing to explicitly use the “fairness doctrine” to silent dissenters. Paul Matzko recounts how, “Conservative radio broadcasting surged in the early 1960s as a result of the rise of non-network, independent radio stations that were cash-strapped and willing to air people whose politics were too radical for network radio.”
These independent radio broadcasters criticized the Kennedy administration on a wide variety of topics from trade to foreign policy.
The administration took notice, and
The administration’s plan for dealing with these conservative irritants involved, among other measures, using the regulatory power granted to the executive branch to intimidate their donors and hosts. First, a special campaign of targeted Internal Revenue Service audits challenging their tax-exempt status stemmed the flow of donations to the offending broadcasters. Then, the selective application of the Federal Communication Commission’s Fairness Doctrine pressured station owners into dropping conservative programming altogether. All of this was coordinated from the Oval Office and the Attorney General’s office, part of it even caught on tape.
By the late 1960s, it was clear who was in charge of media: a small number of major media outlets backed up by the federal government. It was these players who would decide what was “fair,” what was “the center,” and what was acceptable political debate.
Naturally, this wasn’t done through any explicit announcements. Rather, the media used tactics such as what political scientists call “agenda setting,” “framing” and “priming” to set the terms of acceptable debate. These tactics involve the media emphasizing certain events over others, creating standards by which events ought to be judged, and simplifying issues by presenting only a small number of opposing viewpoints. This naturally has the effect of limiting which viewpoints end up being perceived by the public as “normal.” Viewpoints outside those presented as mainstream then strike the viewer or reader as “extreme.” Moreover, as the media picks and chooses which events to cover, some events and persons gain prominence in the national discussion while others fade into the background. This is an easy way to manipulate how the public views which facts are relevant and which are not.
The effect of all this is that many ideologies, persons, and facts are “censored” simply as a result of being ignored or excluded by media stories in broadcasts and printed texts.
The Rise of the Internet
In spite of all this, many independent media organizations continued to make inroads into the establishment media domain through radio broadcasts. This was especially true of conservative and right-wing broadcasts, which became immensely popular during the 1990s and early 2000s and influenced the media landscape considerably. The most successful of these was likely The Rush Limbaugh Show, although there were many imitators such as Michael Medved, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage.
So lucrative had this conservative “alternative” become that Fox News, which began broadcasts in 1996, attempted to capitalize on the notion of presenting “unbiased” news that would depart from the bias of organizations like CNN and NBC News. “We Report, You Decide” became the tagline, and many followers of conservative talk radio tuned in to hear the allegedly unbiased version of broadcast television news.
The landscape changed again as internet websites became increasingly influential. The Drudge Report, which began as an email newsletter in 1995 and went online in 1997, attracted an enormous readership after it became a source for information on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, which the establishment media had initially refused to carry.
By 1999, numerous editors, webmasters, and organizations—ones generally ignored by the establishment media—were founding their own websites and producing their own content. Sites like LewRockwell.com, Antiwar.com, and mises.org—among countless others—were gaining access to a far larger audience than had ever been available in the days of mailed newsletters. Meanwhile, more established publications like National Review moved much of their content online, capturing a much larger audience than had ever been possible in the days of magazines sent only to paid subscribers.
The Rise of Social Media
During this period, it is understandable that many followers of alternative media began to believe that it would finally become possible to compete with the old establishment media on its own terms.
After all, for the first time, any organization could inexpensively purchase a domain name, start a website, and make the organization’s materials and opinions accessible to the general public. In most cases, these websites were free to readers. This represented quite a departure from the days of newsletters, monthly magazines, and newspapers that were costly to produce and which reached audiences sometimes numbering only hundreds of people.
Now, the same points of view once hidden in obscure newsletters could be read by anyone, and could be linked from other websites. These articles could easily be quoted, reproduced, and even promoted through online ads and through established mailing lists.
Being an alternative news source suddenly got a whole lot easier, even if an organization still had to engage in the hard work of building an audience.
By the early 2000s, however, it was clear that the establishment media wasn’t about to disappear. In fact, many large national news organizations increased in power. This occurred because the proliferation of free online news sources and classified ads decimated revenue for smaller newspapers and news organizations. Midsized and small newspapers began to shrink or disappear entirely. And the relative power of the Washington Post and the New York Times increased. Moreover, old TV-viewing habits were difficult to change, and TV broadcasting continued to dominate the news cycle, even if commentary and alternative points of view could easily be found online for free.
Although the internet had made it far easier to deliver other viewpoints to readers, these readers still had to go out of their way to actually visit and read these sites. For many, it remained easier to just turn on the television and consume whatever information appeared on the screen before them.
With the rise of smartphones and social media, however, it looked like even small organizations might be able to place themselves in front of readers with even less effort. All that was necessary was for social media users to “like” your organization and then the reader would receive updates in news feeds as new information came online. It looked like the alternative media would be able to use social media to engage the reader every time he or she casually scrolled through the “news feed” on his/her desktop or smartphone.
By 2016, however, it was clear it wasn’t going to be so simple as all that. By then it was increasingly evident that social media companies were using their software to control what the readers saw in their news feeds beyond the readers’ use of the Like button. Moreover, accusations continued to mount that companies like Facebook and Twitter were curating the content within their listed “trending” topics and within the newsfeeds to emphasize certain stories while hiding other points of view.
Not surprisingly, the billionaires, editors, and curators at social media firms—many of whom worked within corporate cultures extremely similar to those found at establishment media firms—were interested in presenting a controlled news stream to readers. Social media firms continue to pretend to be “platforms,” but they are, in fact, media companies that edit and control what the public can see.
This, of course, was to be expected. There was never any reason to assume that the content managers meeting in offices at Facebook would be any more unbiased than the reporters in a newsroom at the Washington Post. These gatekeepers had their own set of biases and were more than happy to use their power to favor their preferred ideological bent.
The alternative media—and its readers—had made the mistake of thinking social media was an unbiased and objective player. It wasn’t. And it isn’t.
The Game Is Unchanged
Far from changing the game fundamentally, social media has actually helped to continue a trend that was already accelerating during the mid-twentieth century. It has helped to further centralize gatekeeping power over the media narrative in the hands of a relatively small number of people.
Moreover, social media has simply added its weight to the overall monolith of establishment media, which—while in decline—is anything but irrelevant. Indeed, traditional media like television likely remain more influential than social media. Although young Americans are watching less and less TV, the over-40 population, which votes more often than younger cohorts, still receives a very large amount of its news from organizations like CNN and Fox News. TV news may be for “old people,” but the fact remains that the voter turnout for the over-60 cohort is about double that of the 18–29 age group. Meanwhile, nearly 50 percent of Americans 65 and older still get their news from traditional TV. Fifty-eight percent of the over-65 group “often” get news from cable TV. Televised news is also relatively more central in the media habits of nonwhites and women.
We could contrast this with Twitter, which the establishment media often treats as if it were a representative slice of America. Yet surveys suggest only 22 percent of Americans use Twitter at all, and the overwhelming number of posts on Twitter are produced by only 10 percent of users. Twitter is primarily the domain of people who have graduate degrees, are white, and are left-of-center in their politics.
It could be that Twitter may be the news source of the future, but for now, people who actually vote get far more of their news from TV or other sources.
In any case, it should be clear that the game of providing alternative and dissenting viewpoints hasn’t actually changed much with the rise of social media. Any journalist, commentator, or organization that wishes to provide “alternative” views and critiques must fight to draw readers away from the dominant media companies, which enjoy all the advantages of deep pockets and support from university professors, government bureaucrats, and the wealthy.
In social media—as in the established old media—editors, curators, and managers work to promote their own self-described “mainstream” views while excluding as “extreme” the views of everyone else. This is the status quo we’ve long been facing, and it doesn’t look to be changing any time soon.
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