Dan Gainor: Can conservative speech online survive 2020 efforts to stop Trump?

The 2020 presidential election won’t just be a battle about who wins the White House. It’s a fight to see if the idea of free speech can survive a full-on attack from the very forces that once claimed to support such freedom.

Social media sites — like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook — have become the most active political battlegrounds. But this election, conservatives are battling for their right to simply stay on the platforms and spread their message.

It wasn’t always this way. The tech world was thrilled when Barack Obama used social media to emerge victorious in 2008 and 2012. President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory also relied heavily on social media skill. Many in the liberal-dominated industry have fought at every turn to prevent another such devastating defeat.

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This pivotal struggle will be the subject of one the panels this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. The Thursday discussion, “The Future of Social Media in the Public Square,” will dig into both the problem and possible solutions.

The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Attorney General William Barr spoke just last week at a session looking into the future of Big Tech and expressed concern about “those whose speech has been banned or restricted by these platforms.”

Barr’s assessment was correct. The issue of Big Tech bias against conservatives escalated rapidly after the 2016 election. The major media alleged a minor Russian influence operation had helped Trump win.

The narrative stuck and both journalists and tech staff have been having a collective freakout ever since. Google was a perfect example. Company execs held a large meeting the day after the election, an event that resembled a group cry-in. Google co-founder Sergey Brin told the audience, “Let’s face it, most people here are pretty upset and pretty sad.”

What has followed has been an ever-growing battle over what people can say and do on social media. Conservatives are fighting for free speech on platforms run by liberal executives with heavily liberal workplaces. They have created policies that reflect their left-wing worldview and then have those same biased employees enforce them.

The companies have employed so-called “fact-checkers” who push left-wing opinion as fact and restrict traffic to conservative outlets that don’t bow to their agenda.

Conservative speech has suffered. Prominent figures on the right, including members of Congress, have been silenced and shadowbanned. Conservative groups, especially the pro-life community, have run into problems across the social media world. Live Action has been repeatedly censored by Twitter and even the Chinese app TikTok tried to shut them down.

The companies have expanded their so-called “hate speech” policies so much that they’ve grown to hundreds or even thousands of words. The resulting documents are legalese only a lawyer could love and vague enough to ban everything from the Declaration of Independence to the Bible.

The pressure on social media companies to do even more is immense. Actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who made a career with offensive speech and characters like “Borat,” has decided that others should not be given the same opportunity online. He has been at the forefront of those who want to limit what the platforms allow, using the slogan, “Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach.”

In other words, the platforms don’t have to allow whatever you say to be seen by anyone else.

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Traditional media outlets have pushed the firms to restrict advertising and even shut down Trump’s Twitter account. Some of the companies gave in and restricted political ads.

Facebook didn’t and has been bombarded by negative press. CEO Mark Zuckerberg infuriated critics with a Georgetown University speech that argued for free speech. “I’m proud that our values at Facebook are inspired by the American tradition, which is more supportive of free expression than anywhere else,” he declared.

Just this week, The Washington Post wrote a massive article ridiculously claiming that Facebook “has tilted rightward” because it refuses to restrict political ads. And Zuckerberg, desperate for a way out of the conflict, wrote an op-ed in The Financial Times headlined: “Big Tech needs more regulation.”

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Conservatives have pushed for fair treatment. The Media Research Center and more than 60 conservative organizations formed the Free Speech Alliance to defend conservative speech against the onslaught. The goals are simple — to preserve the ability of people to share their opinions online without companies and governments stopping them.

The potential of social media remains incredible and gives every person the chance to share his or her views around the world.

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The potential downside is immense. Researcher and psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein has warned that Google alone could influence up to 15 million votes this election simply by how it displays search results. The other top social media companies have the power and reach to influence elections across the globe, not just here in the United States.

Most of these companies are based here in the United States. They should be spreading American ideals of freedom and not trying to turn the online world into a global safe space.

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