The surprising — or not so surprising, for those of you that have been paying attention — news recently broke that YouTube throttled the YouTube account of congresswoman and Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard when she started trending on Google and Twitter recently. YouTube went a step further. They buried search results specifically in America.
Allow me to break this down to highlight the malice involved in this conduct.
If an individual, a consumer, is searching for specific content on the largest media outlet in the world, they are obviously looking for that type of content, or from a content producer. In turn, the platform (or publisher, which still isn’t clear) is expected to provide the content that is being searched for. This is how the relationship between the consumer and the platform/publisher is supposed to work. The nefarious part of this is that the content producer, in this case, is a presidential candidate and the search results were purposefully suppressed in the country in which that person is running, while she was trending across social media. This should send a chill down the spine of not only every American voter, but down the spines of freedom-lovers around the world. After all, if Google can do this to an American politician, what is stopping them from doing it to anyone else, anywhere else in the world? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
There are several key takeaways from this incident, and they all need to be addressed and analyzed very carefully. The ramifications of how we address these problems could very well forever change how the age of information, and our political system, operates.
First and foremost, we must account for the massive potential ramifications that this incident holds for our political system.
While this is an obvious breach of the quickly-dwindling amount of consumer trust in YouTube and Google, and continues to erode the belief that many Americans have in the modern political system, it has far more potential to lead the American voter by the nose in whatever direction the information gatekeepers choose. If one company can have a stranglehold on the flow of information to the American voter, how drastically could this skew the informed opinions of the voter themselves? How could this alter the outcomes of future elections? Given how much power the chief executive currently wields in this country, the logical conclusion that must be explored is how much change in our political system — and the country itself — could occur based on the actions of a handful of companies?
These questions should at least be lingering in the back our minds as we continue to watch the drama that is modern American politics plays out.
At the same time, we must resist the temptation to have a knee-jerk reaction to this admittedly unjust, unscrupulous, and dangerous act. Some argue that YouTube is a private company, and they’re right. Others argue that YouTube should be held accountable for conduct like this, and they’re right as well. The question is, who holds this private company accountable? The answer is the individual consumer.
To invite the government to interfere with the business of a private company invites it to do what it has always done: Grow its power and reach across whatever medium it can. The federal government has long sought to control popular media, as evidenced by repeated attempts to push the Fairness Doctrine through the Federal Communications Commission, and similar policy through Congress.
It is up to the consumer to make their voices heard with their clicks and their wallets. While the progress of the market is slower than many of us would like, it is the surest way to protect our freedom of choice in a world where it is becoming more and more of a precious commodity.
But this has another ideological side that should be accounted for apart from the more substantive consequences that this incident entails: We must stand up for the principle of free speech regardless of who it is that is being throttled. Tulsi Gabbard is clearly no paragon of libertarian or conservative ideology, but she is obviously seen as enough of a threat to the direction that the Democratic Party is going that it was deemed appropriate to take this sort of action against her. While some are already arguing that “she’s a liberal anyway,” that isn’t the right approach that we should be taking as lovers of liberty.
Regardless of what stance someone takes, we should embrace and seek to protect their natural right to say it. We don’t have to agree with them in order to do so. But if this growing issue isn’t addressed with Big Tech now, when they suppress our ideological opponents, how can we call ourselves libertarians? Perhaps, more importantly, if they can do this to a trending Democratic candidate, what will stop them from doing it to everyone else, ourselves included?
The use of force on the part of a platform to suppress information that the consumer can reasonably expect to have access to is not acceptable. We need to acknowledge that. We must not let any entity, public or private, decide for us what we can and can’t see online. That firmly places the onus on us as individuals to learn and grow and counter-arguments that we disagree with using better arguments than our opponents. If we stand by and allow those who we disagree with to be suppressed, then we are no better than the authoritarians calling for their suppression in the first place. Even worse, we are allowing our ideological and intellectual growth to stagnate, enabling ourselves to become lazy.
Finally, we must keep in mind that this is just the latest battle, the latest escalation, in this war of ideas that we find ourselves in. This will continue in one form or another. If Google and YouTube are held accountable by their consumers, or even by the government, we cannot call it a victory and go home. We must remain vigilant. We must keep the weapons that we have at hand, our clicks, our wallets, and our minds, ready for financial, ideological, and intellectual battle.
Make your voice heard. Debate the ideas that you disagree with, with respect and intellect. Stand up for free speech regardless of what ideological corner it comes from, and celebrate that we live in a country in which it is still present.
We should be doing everything that we can as responsible consumers, as individuals, to empower ourselves to counter the malevolent forces that are at work in the modern political system, and to further the cause of liberty not only when it suits our particular ideological nuances, but when it furthers the cause of liberty as a whole.
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