WE know certain truths to be self-evident: the religious sensibilities of popes, the defecatory habits of bears, and the censorious proclivities of social media companies. So when Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator magazine, wrote that Facebook had banned it from using the front cover of its January edition to advertise on its own Facebook page (see here), no TCW reader will have been surprised. A jibe at the cognitive abilities of President Joe Biden was likely to upset the Silicon Valley panjandrums in a way that similar jokes directed at right-wing politicians would not.
As Nelson pointed out, magazine covers featuring disobliging caricatures of Donald Trump, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson had been posted without comment. Nelson noted other Facebook censorship, such as that of an article by Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, presenting evidence that face masks were ineffective against airborne viral infections. Such censorship ceased to be ground-breaking news a long time ago.
I decided to test Facebook’s authoritarianism by posting the Spectator front cover on my own Facebook page. As at time of writing, it is still up. Perhaps Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t deal with low-level infringements. After all, in media terms, it’s not that I’m a small fish. I am (as one Apprentice candidate was informed) not even a fish. Size seems to matter. It was only when the Died Suddenly News group had more than 300,000 members that Facebook removed it. Perhaps if we all put the Spectator cover on our Facebook pages, we could attract enough attention to be banned (come on, you know you want to tell your friends about when you were banned from social media for ‘dangerous’ content). At least we might exercise a certain Streisand effect, making the ban draw more attention to the original than it would have received without censorship.
What is more disappointing about this latest social media muzzling is the inability of Fraser Nelson to draw the logical conclusion from Facebook’s behaviour. He wrote that ‘the moral of this story is not that Facebook is censoring anti-Biden material’. You what? Nelson seems to blame it on the automatic monitoring system (‘the bots’). But someone has to program the bots to detect and destroy that which may offend Silicon Valley sensibilities. While I am not even a fish in media world, a fine Scottish salmon like Nelson should see immediately what is happening, yet he bends over backwards to imagine that there has been some terrible misunderstanding on Facebook’s part. Fortunately my fellow media plankton, who write below-the-line comments, are giving Nelson an education on this matter in the traditional acerbic manner.
It was not always thus at the Spectator. In 2020, when the Co-op withdrew advertising due to its coverage of transgender issues, the magazine followed its policy of naming and shaming them and stating it would never again take their advertising. After the Co-op had apologised and protested it was just a mistake by their advertising agency, the Spectator relented and normal service between advertiser and magazine was restored.
Fraser Nelson is aware of Facebook’s power as an advertising medium and perhaps is more wary of outright confrontation with it than with an individual advertiser, which is more easily replaced. But then who will take on the social media giants? There is no desire within Government to have a fight with them. Some may be afraid of their power. Others may long for the day that they may, like Sir Nick Clegg, get a lucrative job with Facebook and don’t want to blot their copybook. Others may simply not grasp that social media mammoths are effectively monopolies in their fields and should suffer the fate of other monopolies: either be regulated by the state or broken up.
Monopoly laws have not kept up with the internet age. In the UK, any firm having more than 25 per cent market share may be deemed to be a monopoly, but on the internet it’s not clear how that would be applied. What exactly is the market that Facebook operates in? Is it sufficiently different from say, Google, YouTube, TikTok or Twitter to be considered a separate market? The United States is just as clueless in this respect. Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act protects social media firms from prosecution for content posted by third parties, just as telephone companies can’t be held responsible for the conversations taking place on their networks. However, the Communications Decency Act was passed in 1996, when the internet was still in its infancy. So social media firms have been free to censor all sorts of views whilst claiming that they’re just a platform when it is convenient and taking their Section 230 protections.
The prospect of Ofcom regulating social media giants may not fill defenders of free speech with any confidence, but even to suggest it at least acknowledges that there is a problem which needs addressing. Monopolies can be broken up, even big ones such as Standard Oil and AT&T, but the bigger they are the harder it is to do and it needs courage on the part of government and the courts. Don’t hold your breath waiting.