The Liberal Establishment Playbook for Attaining Hegemony Over Public Discourse
“Rogan is uncancellable” totally misses the point, how tech platforms are pressured into censoring, and how we get out of this mess
A common refrain in the midst of the controversy surrounding Joe Rogan’s podcast and the attempt to have him removed from Spotify is that “Joe Rogan is uncancellable.” I suspect it’s true, as far as it goes, that were Spotify to eat its contract with Rogan and remove him from the platform, he would find a home on one of many other platforms (Rumble recently offered him $100M over four years to bring his podcast to its video platform) or a new one that he creates and continue to reach a massive audience. This observation misses the point though.
By now we know, if it wasn’t already obvious given the timing of the viral N-word-laden video montage surfacing conspicuously just after a few music stars issued an ultimatum to Spotify — remove Rogan from the platform because of, what we perceive to be, dangerous Covid misinformation or we pull our music — that this was a coordinated and politically motivated hatchet job. Rogan is being targeted because he is an influential and independent voice who doesn’t play by the liberal establishment’s rules and does not abide by liberal pieties. A popular voice who “platforms” guests who openly question core liberal orthodoxies on issues as wide-ranging as vaccine mandates, trans women in sports, critical race theory and who has not been reticent to voice his views on the obvious senility of the sitting Democratic president simply cannot be tolerated. Especially with a presidential election cycle around the corner.
If this attempt at removing Rogan from Spotify succeeds, it will represent yet another narrowing of what is considered acceptable discourse in the public square as dictated by the American liberal faction. Indeed, this is their goal: to circumscribe public conversation. The people behind the attack on Rogan are following what is by now a well-established playbook of liberal activists. After identifying a heresy (read: any deviation from liberal orthodoxy), the first step is to find a pretext to use as the basis for demanding that a corporate entity restrict or suppress the heretic’s speech or drop him altogether. This first step pretends to be asking nicely. It frames the demand as an appeal to corporation’s social responsibility: “You have a responsibility not to promulgate misinformation which could literally kill people” or “Harboring someone who has made racially insensitive comments in the past is harming people of color”, and so on.
This appeal succeeds, in part, because corporations and their officers are social and political animals like anyone else and there’s a limit to how much of the public’s ire they can withstand. When the company inevitably caves to the activists’ demands, even if only in part, a general hue and cry by the public against the company picks up steam. In the case of Spotify, it was Neil Young and Joni Mitchell pulling their music from the platform. As this unfolds, PAC-funded groups and related activists work quietly behind the scenes, preparing a veritable arsenal of damaging video clips, tweets and quotes, much in the same way that political campaigns invest tremendous time and energy on opposition research. Now, these activists have a tremendous amount to gain from succeeding in their cancellation efforts. They also have a lot to lose if the attempt fails so they structure the campaign very carefully, releasing just the right information at just the right time.
The next stage: make everyone choose
In the attack on Rogan, the next drip in the campaign was the N-word compilation. This was crafted for maximum virality and maximum damage. At this stage, the activists have shifted to a more ambitious goal. In the first stage, a campaign’s co-religionists signal their agreement primarily by staging a protest, by publicly severing ties with the targeted company. The protest here took the form of musicians pulling their music from Spotify. But the activists’ ultimate goal is to exert total control over the company, to gain the power to dictate speech on the platform in question and to intensify elite, liberal hegemony over media generally.
That goal cannot be achieved by a few fading stars withdrawing their music in protest. So the activists’ next milestone is to make it so that no one can remain neutral vis-à-vis the platform. Everyone who might consider a relationship with Spotify has to be seen to be making a choice: if they establish or maintain a relationship with the company, it’s because they support dangerous misinformation and racism. It reaches a point where it isn’t that some artists are taking a stand in opposition to Rogan by withdrawing their music from the platform, but that anyone who stays on or initiates a relationship with the platform can be accused of supporting misinformation and racism. This inflection point greatly expands the power that the activists have over public discourse. Which is exactly their goal.
So whether Rogan himself would survive being dropped by Spotify (I’m sure he would) is missing the point. If the activists attain their goal, they will have succeeded in expanding their stranglehold on public speech.
Tech companies were pressured into censoring
The big tech companies didn’t start with the intention of exerting control over speech or to policing discourse on their platforms. In fact, Facebook, Google and the other tech giants grew up in the decidely libertarian milieu of Silicon Valley which was filled with starry-eyed optimism and hope for a truly free internet. They were pressured by government and political actors into the role of censor they now occupy. They were pressured by veiled (and often not-so-subtle) threats of harm to their companies by regulators and lawmakers and by political activists through the playbook we just reviewed.
That this policing isn’t something these companies sought to do of their own accord highlights just how pernicious the influence of mass media and its attendant political activists is. It also underscores just how deep a problem this is and the futility of believing that new platforms making pledges and commitments to valuing free speech is sufficient. I am not suggesting here that we approach new platforms that advocate for free speech with cynicism. On the contrary, I think it’s important to support alternative tech platforms that are trying to do the right thing. My point is simply that the promises made by a new platform are inherently insufficient.
How do we get out of this mess?
How do we solve this problem? How do we as a society get up from underneath the boot of these tech monopolies? There are two approaches, one short-to-medium term and one longer-term. In near-term, the solution is hinted at in the label I just applied to the tech companies, “monopoly.” Even the most strident libertarian acknowledges that antitrust regulation which seeks to curb the power of monopolies is legitimate government action. This is perfectly consistent with a commitment to free markets because what makes free markets useful, what makes them fuel creativity and productivity, is competition and a monopoly effectively prevents meaningful competition.
In such a scenario, there is no free market anymore. So, far from being a betrayal of the idea of a free market, insisting that the government use its lawmaking and regulatory power to rein in the power of the giant tech corporations is a demonstration of a commitment to a free and competitive market. Just think back to what happened after the January 6th “insurrection.” In the wake of those events, Parler became the most downloaded app in the US. Until Google and Amazon flexed their monopoly power and effectively crushed meaningful competition to Twitter and Facebook.
Hence, the idea that “private corporations have a right to moderate content on their platform and you’re always free to build your own network” is utterly meaningless when the tech monopolies use their immense power to stifle any meaningful competition. So that’s the first near-term solution: to advocate that lawmakers do their job to regulate the giant tech monopolies.
Antitrust legislation will help, but I suspect it’s not the ultimate solution. The underlying problem we now have is the increasing privatization of the public square. Most public discourse now takes place across a few giant tech platforms owned by private companies. This isn’t something the framers could have possibly envisioned. As a result, I would argue that what is needed is something akin to a new Internet Bill of Rights. How exactly this would work I don’t know and I will be the first to acknowledge that poorly drafted law is worse than no law at all. But the basic idea would be that once a tech platform becomes large enough that being prevented from speaking on it can be reasonably considered to be an abridgement of a person’s ability to engage meaningfully in public discourse, that certain regulations would kick in which require due process and other standards to be met in order for the company in question to censor or ban speakers from its platform.
But even this depends on the wisdom of lawmakers and the perhaps naive expectation that these private companies wouldn’t find ways to circumvent the new regulatory scheme. Which is why we need to move as far away as we can from the privatization of the public square. What is needed is completely decentralized public conversation built on top of tech and infrastructure that is simply incapable of being censored due to the fact that there just isn’t a central authority with such power. This is the permanent fix to the problem.
Rather than relying on the good will of regulators and private companies, we need to move towards a situation in which trust is simply not part of the equation. Blockchain and other decentralized architectures exist which can power this vision. Yes, many have already tried building decentralized competitors to Twitter and Facebook (Diaspora, Minds, Mastodon, Manyverse… though these have varying degrees of immunity from central control as I understand it). For the most part, they have failed to reach a critical mass with which to overcome the network effects that the incumbent tech platforms enjoy. This starting problem is a seemingly insurmountable challenge and I don’t pretend to know the answers. What I do know is that we have to keep trying and that if we want to restore any semblance of a truly free and open marketplace of ideas, we cannot tie our lot and our aspirations to private corporations.