What do you do as an Australian parliament when a foreign company censors mainstream media content in Australia, undermining free speech? Do you organise an inquiry to hold those foreign companies to account and to see how you might prevent foreign meddling? Or do you fall into line and organise McCarthy-like hearings to intimidate those whose opinions have fallen into (foreign) disfavour?
We now know the answer: Labour and the Greens have fallen into line with foreign internet companies censoring Alan Jones and Sky news. It is not the foreign companies that are asked to defend themselves but Alan Jones. And the BBC article linked to above very nicely says that a big reason for the censorship was that Alan Jones was “questioning public health orders”. Might I quietly say ‘Wow’? Questioning policy, how dare he! Where is our democracy going to when people can question policies in the media?
It is a pity that things are taking this turn in Australia. Up till now, free speech on the covid issue has been one of the positives in Australia. It has often been acrimonious but at least open airing of different views has occurred. Among the newspapers, the Australian has been lockdown-sceptic from day one, with the Financial Review increasingly sceptical too. Several other newspapers have been pro-lockdown but still frequently running sceptical pieces. This diversity of views was also present on television, with Sky News running a sceptical line from the beginning. On radio too, there has been diversity of views, with Gigi Foster co-hosting the sceptical ‘Economists’ program on the ABC.
Whilst state governments have spared no expense in propaganda and the vast majority of the media is fully in line with covid-mania, there hence has been a sceptical mainstream media presence in Australia since the very beginning. It is something to be proud of, certainly compared to most of Europe, the UK, or the US!
Yet, the censorship that the internet giants have engaged in from early on (Amazon for instance censored Jeffrey Tucker’s early book on covid madness in mid 2020, and of course there was the saga around the attempt of Google and others to hide the Great Barrington Declaration) is a new factor in the media landscape. Several friends and co-authors of mine have personally been censored by internet giants the last 18 months (facebook, google, microsoft, linkedin, twitter, youtube). The reality is that much of Australian media and commentary takes place on the platforms of the Big Tech giants, giving Big Tech enormous power over what gets air time and what does not. They have used that power to push the pro-lockdown line that benefits their shareholders. Whatever one’s view of the truth, what else can one expect from commercial companies but that they use their clout to support the views good for their bottom line?
It is simply the reality that we live in an age of unprecedented censorship conceived of and enforced by a handful of international companies. The last international entity to do this for any time with some success was the Catholic Church that kept whole populations ignorant via book burning, lists of forbidden books, burning of heretics reading the wrong books, etc. The invention of the printing press made the Church’s task difficult as cheap books could be smuggled in, so the intellectual elites could no longer be censored. Since around 1600 AD only national governments in the West have been truly successful at complete censorship, if only for a while. Yet, their efforts were increasingly undermined by the advent of radio and television. Censorship became near impossible in the 1990s due to the emerging internet and mobile phone technology. Governments found counter-measures but they could be circumvented by the technologically literate, meaning that once again the intellectual elites were ‘sort of’ free whilst only the majority within countries could be effectively censored. Censorship was one of degrees the last 30 years.
Late 2021, censorship is still not total and one of degrees, but censorship by international entities is back. The vast majority of the population in many countries can now be directed to total nonsense by international commercial interests. This has happened to stunning effect during covid times, such as the attempt by Facebook and other Big Tech companies to suppress the China lab-leak theory, probably to please a befriended government. Let us consider likely dynamics.
One main question is whether competition will solve the situation eventually, independent of governments. Will gap, rumble, duckduckgo, bitchute, Odysee, and many other new media platforms divide the media space currently dominated by a few internet giants? Will they break the current censorship?
In the short-run, I think the answer is ‘yes’: the Covistance and others are turning to alternative platforms to build their own media networks. There is a whole ecosystem emerging of citizen media platforms, which should be expected the next few years to lead to real diversity in mainstream choice, most certainly when it comes to covid and political correctness. You see this perhaps most clearly in the UK where GB news, intended as counterweight to the incessant propaganda and abysmal news quality of the BBC, is making inroads, building on smaller initiatives like Talkradio.
In the medium run, the answer is not so clear because there are such obvious returns to scale involved in running internet platforms. It is simply cheaper to bundle the technology needed to run videos, newspapers, internet search, or whatever in one place. Duplication of the effort into constantly updating all the protection, personally-optimised search, program-compatibility, etc., is a huge cost and the existing Big Tech companies will try to squeeze the life out of those getting traction outside their influence. So the fear is that the internet giants will buy up the more successful new media kids on the block, adding it to their overall internet umbrella, whilst using various dirty tactics (court cases, making links difficult, sabotaging search algorithms, platform incompatibility, etc.) to kill independent small firms. Some idealists might hold out for a while, but the internet giants can offer them an awful lot of money so resistance should not be expected to last. Since the underlying technology has a lot of returns to scale, it is hard to see how internet-related media diversity can thrive long-term in a commercial environment.
In the longer run things look different again because of the eventual response of communities that want to retain their own control independent of international internet companies, simply taking the cost hit. Some countries, like China, have already done this. Other countries seem likely to follow in setting up their national internet space, not merely to do their own news-production but also for tax, security, and democratic purposes. Competition between countries, rather than between companies, has another likely dynamic: countries can start to offer the basic technology of their internet platforms to other countries for a fee, such as China offering small countries in Asia and Africa a whole internet package that comes with local government control. With national platforms come a release from the censorship of Big Tech, so countries can allow diversity on their own platforms. In turn, countries can allow citizens of other countries on their platforms, allowing some seepage of censorship by other countries. This is likely to happen, if only for reasons of strategic competition between blocks of countries, ie to undermine the other countries. So then we’re back in the 1980s news landscape when it comes to censorship: something that exists somewhat at the national level but with high international leakage.
There are many other developments that might change the balance, but at present trends it looks to me like the ability of internet giants to censor what people get to read is likely to diminish in both the short and the longer run even in the presence of those returns to scale. For mainstream national audiences my main scenario is then that diversity offerings will depend on what is allowed to run on a national internet platform. Diversity of content will then need a nationalism that wants diversity of content.