Guest Post by Glenn Greenwald
All factions, at certain points, succumb to the impulse to censor. But for the Democratic Party’s liberal adherents, silencing their adversaries has become their primary project.
Joe Rogan interviews Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Aug. 6, 2019, roughly six months before he endorsed the Vermont independent for president.
American liberals are obsessed with finding ways to silence and censor their adversaries. Every week, if not every day, they have new targets they want de-platformed, banned, silenced, and otherwise prevented from speaking or being heard (by “liberals,” I mean the term of self-description used by the dominant wing of the Democratic Party).
For years, their preferred censorship tactic was to expand and distort the concept of “hate speech” to mean “views that make us uncomfortable,” and then demand that such “hateful” views be prohibited on that basis. For that reason, it is now common to hear Democrats assert, falsely, that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not protect “hate speech.” Their political culture has long inculcated them to believe that they can comfortably silence whatever views they arbitrarily place into this category without being guilty of censorship.
Constitutional illiteracy to the side, the “hate speech” framework for justifying censorship is now insufficient because liberals are eager to silence a much broader range of voices than those they can credibly accuse of being hateful. That is why the newest, and now most popular, censorship framework is to claim that their targets are guilty of spreading “misinformation” or “disinformation.” These terms, by design, have no clear or concise meaning. Like the term “terrorism,” it is their elasticity that makes them so useful.
When liberals’ favorite media outlets, from CNN and NBC to The New York Times and The Atlantic, spend four years disseminating one fabricated Russia story after the next — from the Kremlin hacking into Vermont’s heating system and Putin’s sexual blackmail over Trump to bounties on the heads of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the Biden email archive being “Russian disinformation,” and a magical mystery weapon that injures American brains with cricket noises — none of that is “disinformation” that requires banishment. Nor are false claims that COVID’s origin has proven to be zoonotic rather than a lab leak, the vastly overstated claim that vaccines prevent transmission of COVID, or that Julian Assange stole classified documents and caused people to die. Corporate outlets beloved by liberals are free to spout serious falsehoods without being deemed guilty of disinformation, and, because of that, do so routinely.
This “disinformation” term is reserved for those who question liberal pieties, not for those devoted to affirming them. That is the real functional definition of “disinformation” and of its little cousin, “misinformation.” It is not possible to disagree with liberals or see the world differently than they see it. The only two choices are unthinking submission to their dogma or acting as an agent of “disinformation.” Dissent does not exist to them; any deviation from their worldview is inherently dangerous — to the point that it cannot be heard.
The data proving a deeply radical authoritarian strain in Trump-era Democratic Party politics is ample and have been extensively reported here. Democrats overwhelmingly trust and love the FBI and CIA. Polls show they overwhelmingly favor censorship of the internet not only by Big Tech oligarchs but also by the state. Leading Democratic Party politicians have repeatedly subpoenaed social media executives and explicitly threatened them with legal and regulatory reprisals if they do not censor more aggressively — a likely violation of the First Amendment given decades of case law ruling that state officials are barred from coercing private actors to censor for them, in ways the Constitution prohibits them from doing directly.
Democratic officials have used the pretexts of COVID, “the insurrection,” and Russia to justify their censorship demands. Both Joe Biden and his Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, have “urged” Silicon Valley to censor more when asked about Joe Rogan and others who air what they call “disinformation” about COVID. They cheered the use of pro-prosecutor tactics against Michael Flynn and other Russiagate targets; made a hero out of the Capitol Hill Police officer who shot and killed the unarmed Ashli Babbitt; voted for an additional $2 billion to expand the functions of the Capitol Police; have demanded and obtained lengthy prison sentences and solitary confinement even for non-violent 1/6 defendants; and even seek to import the War on Terror onto domestic soil.
Given the climate prevailing in the American liberal faction, this authoritarianism is anything but surprising. For those who convince themselves that they are not battling mere political opponents with a different ideology but a fascist movement led by a Hitler-like figure bent on imposing totalitarianism — a core, defining belief of modern-day Democratic Party politics — it is virtually inevitable that they will embrace authoritarianism. When a political movement is subsumed by fear — the Orange Hitler will put you in camps and end democracy if he wins again — then it is not only expected but even rational to embrace authoritarian tactics including censorship to stave off this existential threat. Fear always breeds authoritarianism, which is why manipulating and stimulating that human instinct is the favorite tactic of political demagogues.
And when it comes to authoritarian tactics, censorship has become the liberals’ North Star. Every week brings news of a newly banished heretic. Liberals cheered the news last week that Google’s YouTube permanently banned the extremely popular video channel of conservative commentator Dan Bongino. His permanent ban was imposed for the crime of announcing that, moving forward, he would post all of his videos exclusively on the free speech video platform Rumble after he received a seven-day suspension from Google’s overlords for spreading supposed COVID “disinformation.” What was Bongino’s prohibited view that prompted that suspension? He claimed cloth masks do not work to stop the spread of COVID, a view shared by numerous experts and, at least in part, by the CDC. When Bongino disobeyed the seven-day suspension by using an alternative YouTube channel to announce his move to Rumble, liberals cheered Google’s permanent ban because the only thing liberals hate more than platforms that allow diverse views are people failing to obey rules imposed by corporate authorities.
It is not hyperbole to observe that there is now a concerted war on any platforms devoted to free discourse and which refuse to capitulate to the demands of Democratic politicians and liberal activists to censor. The spear of the attack are corporate media outlets, who demonize and try to render radioactive any platforms that allow free speech to flourish. When Rumble announced that a group of free speech advocates — including myself, former Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, comedian Bridget Phetasy, former Sanders campaign videographer Matt Orfalea and journalist Zaid Jilani — would produce video content for Rumble, The Washington Post immediately published a hit piece, relying exclusively on a Google-and-Facebook-aligned so-called “disinformation expert” to malign Rumble as “one of the main platforms for conspiracy communities and far-right communities in the U.S. and around the world” and a place “where conspiracies thrive,” all caused by Rumble’s “allowing such videos to remain on the site unmoderated.” (The narrative about Rumble is particular bizarre since its Canadian founder and still-CEO, Chris Pavlovski created Rumble in 2013 with apolitical goals — to allow small content creators abandoned by YouTube to monetize their content — and is very far from an adherent to right-wing ideology).
The same attack was launched, and is still underway, against Substack, also for the crime of refusing to ban writers deemed by liberal corporate outlets and activists to be hateful and/or fonts of disinformation. After the first wave of liberal attacks on Substack failed — that script was that it is a place for anti-trans animus and harassment — The Post returned this week for round two, with a paint-by-numbers hit piece virtually identical to the one it published last year about Rumble. “Newsletter company Substack is making millions off anti-vaccine content, according to estimates,” blared the sub-headline. “Prominent figures known for spreading misinformation, such as [Joseph] Mercola, have flocked to Substack, podcasting platforms and a growing number of right-wing social media networks over the past year after getting kicked off or restricted on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube,” warned the Post. It is, evidently, extremely dangerous to society for voices to still be heard once Google decrees they should not be.
This Post attack on Substack predictably provoked expressions of Serious Concern from good and responsible liberals. That included Chelsea Clinton, who lamented that Substack is profiting off a “grift.” Apparently, this political heiress — who is one of the world’s richest individuals by virtue of winning the birth lottery of being born to rich and powerful parents, who in turn enriched themselves by cashing in on their political influence in exchange for $750,000 paychecks from Goldman Sachs for 45-minute speeches, and who herself somehow was showered with a $600,000 annual contract from NBC News despite no qualifications — believes she is in a position to accuse others of “grifting.” She also appears to believe that — despite welcoming convicted child sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell to her wedding to a hedge fund oligarch whose father was expelled from Congress after his conviction on thirty-one counts of felony fraud — she is entitled to decree who should and should not be allowed to have a writing platform:
This Post-manufactured narrative about Substack instantly metastasized throughout the liberal sect of media. “Anti-vaxxers making ‘at least $2.5m’ a year from publishing on Substack,” read the headline of The Guardian, the paper that in 2018 published the outright lie that Julian Assange met twice with Paul Manafort inside the Ecuadorian Embassy and refuses to this day to retract it (i.e., “disinformation”). Like The Post, the British paper cited one of the seemingly endless number of shady pro-censorship groups — this one calling itself the “Center for Countering Digital Hate” — to argue for greater censorship by Substack. “They could just say no,” said the group’s director, who has apparently convinced himself he should be able to dictate what views should and should not be aired: “This isn’t about freedom; this is about profiting from lies. . . . Substack should immediately stop profiting from medical misinformation that can seriously harm readers.”
The emerging campaign to pressure Spotify to remove Joe Rogan from its platform is perhaps the most illustrative episode yet of both the dynamics at play and the desperation of liberals to ban anyone off-key. It was only a matter of time before this effort really galvanized in earnest. Rogan has simply become too influential, with too large of an audience of young people, for the liberal establishment to tolerate his continuing to act up. Prior efforts to coerce, cajole, or manipulate Rogan to fall into line were abject failures. Shortly after The Wall Street Journal reported in September, 2020 that Spotify employees were organizing to demand that some of Rogan’s shows be removed from the platform, Rogan invited Alex Jones onto his show: a rather strong statement that he was unwilling to obey decrees about who he could interview or what he could say.
On Tuesday, musician Neil Young demanded that Spotify either remove Rogan from its platform or cease featuring Young’s music, claiming Rogan spreads COVID disinformation. Spotify predictably sided with Rogan, their most popular podcaster in whose show they invested $100 million, by removing Young’s music and keeping Rogan. The pressure on Spotify mildly intensified on Friday when singer Joni Mitchell issued a similar demand. All sorts of censorship-mad liberals celebrated this effort to remove Rogan, then vowed to cancel their Spotify subscription in protest of Spotify’s refusal to capitulate for now; a hashtag urging the deletion of Spotify’s app trended for days. Many bizarrely urged that everyone buy music from Apple instead; apparently, handing over your cash to one of history’s largest and richest corporations, repeatedly linked to the use of slave labor, is the liberal version of subversive social justice.
Obviously, Spotify is not going to jettison one of their biggest audience draws over a couple of faded septuagenarians from the 1960s. But if a current major star follows suit, it is not difficult to imagine a snowball effect. The goal of liberals with this tactic is to take any disobedient platform and either force it into line or punish it by drenching it with such negative attacks that nobody who craves acceptance in the parlors of Decent Liberal Society will risk being associated with it. “Prince Harry was under pressure to cut ties with Spotify yesterday after the streaming giant was accused of promoting anti-vax content,” claimed The Daily Mail which, reliable or otherwise, is a certain sign of things to come.
One could easily envision a tipping point being reached where a musician no longer makes an anti-Rogan statement by leaving the platform as Young and Mitchell just did, but instead will be accused of harboring pro-Rogan sentiments if they stay on Spotify. With the stock price of Spotify declining as these recent controversies around Rogan unfolded, a strategy in which Spotify is forced to choose between keeping Rogan or losing substantial musical star power could be more viable than it currently seems. “Spotify lost $4 billion in market value this week after rock icon Neil Young called out the company for allowing comedian Joe Rogan to use its service to spread misinformation about the COVID vaccine on his popular podcast, ‘The Joe Rogan Experience,’” is how The San Francisco Chronicle put it (that Spotify’s stock price dropped rather precipitously contemporaneously with this controversy is clear; less so is the causal connection, though it seems unlikely to be entire coincidental):
It is worth recalling that NBC News, in January, 2017, announced that it had hired Megyn Kelly away from Fox News with a $69 million contract. The network had big plans for Kelly, whose first show debuted in June of that year. But barely more than a year later, Kelly’s comments about blackface — in which she rhetorically wondered whether the notorious practice could be acceptable in the modern age with the right intent: such as a young white child paying homage to a beloved African-American sports or cultural figure on Halloween — so enraged liberals, both inside the now-liberal network and externally, that they demanded her firing. NBC decided it was worth firing Kelly — on whom they had placed so many hopes — and eating her enormous contract in order to assuage widespread liberal indignation. “The cancellation of the ex-Fox News host’s glossy morning show is a reminder that networks need to be more stringent when assessing the politics of their hirings,” proclaimed The Guardian.
Democrats are not only the dominant political faction in Washington, controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, but liberals in particular are clearly the hegemonic culture force in key institutions: media, academia and Hollywood. That is why it is a mistake to assume that we are near the end of their orgy of censorship and de-platforming victories. It is far more likely that we are much closer to the beginning than the end. The power to silence others is intoxicating. Once one gets a taste of its power, they rarely stop on their own.
Indeed, it was once assumed that Silicon Valley giants steeped in the libertarian ethos of a free internet would be immune to demands to engage in political censorship (“content moderation” is the more palatable euphemism which liberal corporate media outlets prefer). But when the still-formidable megaphones of The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, CNN and the rest of the liberal media axis unite to accuse Big Tech executives of having blood on their hands and being responsible for the destruction of American democracy, that is still an effective enforcement mechanism. Billionaires are, like all humans, social and political animals and instinctively avoid ostracization and societal scorn.
Beyond the personal interest in avoiding vilification, corporate executives can be made to censor against their will and in violation of their political ideology out of self-interest. The corporate media still has the ability to render a company toxic, and the Democratic Party more now than ever has the power to abuse their lawmaking and regulatory powers to impose real punishment for disobedience, as it has repeatedly threatened to do. If Facebook or Spotify are deemed to be so toxic that no Good Liberals can use them without being attacked as complicit in fascism, white supremacy or anti-vax fanaticism, then that will severely limit, if not entirely sabotage, a company’s future viability.
The one bright spot in all this — and it is a significant one — is that liberals have become such extremists in their quest to silence all adversaries that they are generating their own backlash, based in disgust for their tyrannical fanaticism. In response to the Post attack, Substack issued a gloriously defiant statement re-affirming its commitment to guaranteeing free discourse. They also repudiated the hubristic belief that they are competent to act as arbiters of Truth and Falsity, Good and Bad. “Society has a trust problem. More censorship will only make it worse,” read the headline on the post from Substack’s founders. The body of their post reads like a free speech manifesto:
That’s why, as we face growing pressure to censor content published on Substack that to some seems dubious or objectionable, our answer remains the same: we make decisions based on principles not PR, we will defend free expression, and we will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation. While we have content guidelines that allow us to protect the platform at the extremes, we will always view censorship as a last resort, because we believe open discourse is better for writers and better for society.
A lengthy Twitter thread from Substack’s Vice President of Communications, Lulu Cheng Meservey was similarly encouraging and assertive. “I’m proud of our decision to defend free expression, even when it’s hard,” she wrote, adding: “because: 1) We want a thriving ecosystem full of fresh and diverse ideas. That can’t happen without the freedom to experiment, or even to be wrong.” Regarding demands to de-platform those allegedly spreading COVID disinformation, she pointedly — and accurately — noted: “If everyone who has ever been wrong about this pandemic were silenced, there would be no one left talking about it at all.” And she, too, affirmed principles that every actual, genuine liberal — not the Nancy Pelosi kind — reflexively supports:
People already mistrust institutions, media, and each other. Knowing that dissenting views are being suppressed makes that mistrust worse. Withstanding scrutiny makes truths stronger, not weaker. We made a promise to writers that this is a place they can pursue what they find meaningful, without coddling or controlling. We promised we wouldn’t come between them and their audiences. And we intend to keep our side of the agreement for every writer that keeps theirs. to think for themselves. They tend not to be conformists, and they have the confidence and strength of conviction not to be threatened by views that disagree with them or even disgust them.
This is becoming increasingly rare.
The U.K.’s Royal Society, its national academy of scientists, this month echoed Substack’s view that censorship, beyond its moral dimensions and political dangers, is ineffective and breeds even more distrust in pronouncements by authorities. “Governments and social media platforms should not rely on content removal for combatting harmful scientific misinformation online.” “There is,” they concluded, “little evidence that calls for major platforms to remove offending content will limit scientific misinformation’s harms” and “such measures could even drive it to harder-to-address corners of the internet and exacerbate feelings of distrust in authorities.”
As both Rogan’s success and collapsing faith and interest in traditional corporate media outlets proves, there is a growing hunger for discourse that is liberated from the tight controls of liberal media corporations and their petulant, herd-like employees. That is why other platforms devoted to similar principles of free discourse, such as Rumble for videos and Callin for podcasts, continue to thrive. It is certain that those platforms will continue to be targeted by institutional liberalism as they grow and allow more dissidents and heretics to be heard. Time will tell if they, too, will resist these censorship pressures, but the combination of genuine conviction on the part of their founders and managers, combined with the clear market opportunities for free speech platforms and heterodox thinkers, provides ample ground for optimism.
None of this is to suggest that American liberals are the only political faction that succumbs to the strong temptations of censorships. Liberals often point to the growing fights over public school curricula and particularly the conservative campaign to exclude so-called Critical Race Theory from the public schools as proof that the American Right is also a pro-censorship faction. That is a poor example. Censorship is about what adults can hear, not what children are taught in public schools. Liberals crusaded for decades to have creationism banned from the public schools and largely succeeded, yet few would suggest this was an act of censorship. For the reason I just gave, I certainly would define it that way. Fights over what children should and should not be taught can have a censorship dimension but usually do not, precisely because limits and prohibitions in school curricula are inevitable.
There are indeed examples of right-wing censorship campaigns: among the worst are laws implemented by GOP legislatures and championed by GOP governors to punish those who support a boycott of Israel by denying them contracts or other employment benefits. And among the most frequent targets of censorship campaigns on college campuses are critics of Israel and activists for Palestinian rights. But federal courts have been unanimously striking down those indefensible red-state laws punishing BDS activists as an unconstitutional infringement of free speech rights, and polling data, as noted above, shows that it is the Democrats who overwhelmingly favor internet censorship while Republicans oppose it.
In sum, censorship — once the province of the American Right during the heydey of the Moral Majority of the 1980s — now occurs in isolated instances in that faction. In modern-day American liberalism, however, censorship is a virtual religion. They simply cannot abide the idea that anyone who thinks differently or sees the world differently than they should be heard. That is why there is much more at stake in this campaign to have Rogan removed from Spotify than whether this extremely popular podcast host will continue to be heard there or on another platform. If liberals succeed in pressuring Spotify to abandon their most valuable commodity, it will mean nobody is safe from their petty-tyrant tactics. But if they fail, it can embolden other platforms to similarly defy these bullying tactics, keeping our discourse a bit more free for just awhile longer.