Social Media: Big Tech censorship and the three things that can happen from here

A lot has happened on social media in the last few days, but two incidents are particularly significant. First, Facebook and Twitter decided to remove the President of the United States from their platforms. Second, Twitter decided to remove a post from Iran’s supreme leader for pushing a conspiracy theory about Covid vaccines. Two people who sat at two different extremes. One was the elected leader of the free world. Another was the supreme leader of one of the most autocratic regimes in the world. Both are taking orders from Big Tech.

We finally live in a truly unipolar world. Who won the race for the future? Neither democracy nor dictatorship. The Caesar is Big Tech.

So where do we go now? For this, we must first understand what is happening.

Big Tech is using wokeness to buy out the left

The general right-wing discourse around the world points fingers at Big Tech and accuses them of being in bed with the left. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No sector today is as far from accommodating traditional left-wing concerns as Big Tech. They face minimal regulation, disrupt local economies and global supply chains at will, and operate with a general wild west mentality. First, the gig economy deunionized the entire low skill workforce. It ended the system of employee benefits, health insurance, retirement plans and compensation for workplace-related injuries. In less than a decade, they have wiped out one hundred years of change in working conditions that the left argued for.

In New York, for instance, a taxi license (known as a medallion) used to go for over a million dollars. Thousands of low skill workers, most of them immigrants and people of color, worked their entire lives to get one. It was supposed to be their nest egg; they borrowed large sums of money against it. Then the ride-sharing companies came in, gobbled up their business and turned these people out on the street.

Restaurants used to be another arena full of small businesses. The food delivery apps came in and took over. They now squeeze margins of restaurant owners and engage in rent-seeking behaviour. If you don’t give them what they want, they can kick you off their platform and then you would have no business whatsoever. Food delivery apps are now getting ready to set up “dark kitchens.” These have no brick and mortar interfaces, meaning they can do away with most rental and labor costs associated with running a restaurant. A local restaurant simply cannot compete with their prices. For local restaurants, for taxi drivers, it is already over.

The same with everyone who works in brick and mortar retail. For everyone in the hotel business too, because Big Tech is helping everyone in a city turn their private home into a hotel. Tourists can pay more on a daily basis, so landlords are turning away city inhabitants who need a place to stay long term. Big Tech comes into a neighborhood, with its highly paid workers in tow. As a result, rents rise across the board and low-income residents can no longer afford to stay. They mop the floors and tend the gardens of Big Tech campus by day and sleep on the sidewalk by night.

So why is the left not speaking out against this? Because Big Tech has learned from the mistakes of robber barons of the past. They have resolved not to fight the left, but to buy it out. For this, they have this thing called wokeness. If you give the left all the things they want in the so-called culture wars, they won’t challenge you on issues that matter. Big Tech wants to grab everyone’s data, which is the big new gold rush. So you get all the media, intelligentsia and academia on your side by deplatforming a president they hate. He had only ten days left in his term, by the way.

You don’t want the elites to start talking about how many choices we have in online retail. So you give them a hundred different pronouns to choose from. Right now, Big Tech is involved big time in the trendy new conversation around transgender bathroom choice. Very well. While they were at it, desperate people returned to open defecation on the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Wokeness is cheap. Big Tech bought out the entire left for almost nothing at all.

Why Big Tech is different from usual private enterprise

Follow the money and I will show you how. Suppose you set up a business making shirts and selling them. It goes well and you turn a small profit of say twenty thousand dollars. How much is your business worth? Generally speaking, about 1-3 times the yearly profit. If you lose money, your business is worth nothing at all.

These rules do not apply to Big Tech. They lose money in spades, often billions of dollars a year. To value a tech company, they do not even look at profits, if there are any at all. They look at total revenue before expenses. And it is not unusual to value a tech company at 10-15 times total revenue. If you valued your shirt business like a tech company and your total revenue was $120,000 against expenses of $100,000, your business that made just $20,000 in profit could easily be worth $1.2 million!

Why so absurd? Well, Big Tech is not stupid. They understand that their business is different from usual free enterprise. The difference lies in the ability to scale. To double the size of your shirt business, it would take huge amounts of time and capital investment. You can’t just double the size of your factory like that. But a tech company? If it does well, it could go from 10 users to 10 million users in a few months. Hence, the valuation.

This is what makes Big Tech censorship so frightening. The ability to scale. Traditional censorship, even under an oppressive regime such as Iran, suffers from an inability to scale. How many dissenters could Iran possibly throw into jail? But with a few tweaks to its algorithm, Big Tech could profile millions of people who have a particular political ideology. It could shut down their accounts instantly. It could share this data with other companies, with banks, phone operators and employers. You would lose your job, your bank account, even your cellphone connection. Literally hundreds of millions of dissenters could be silenced in a single day. And nobody would know of their fate because the news could be filtered out too. This kind of suppression has never been possible in history.

That’s why you can no longer apply the usual way of thinking about regulation and private enterprise to Big Tech. The scale of Big Tech beats anything that could have been imagined when we laid down those principles. It is similar to the second amendment debate they have in the US. The US Constitution gives people the right to bear arms. But which arms? Would it allow a private citizen to own a nuclear bomb? Those who framed the US Constitution in the 1700s could never have visualized such weapons. They were probably just thinking about guns and rather primitive ones at that. That’s why you can’t apply the second amendment to today’s inter-continental ballistic missiles.

Three scenarios for the future

What happens next? At least three things are possible.

One, we could really be headed for a dictatorship of Big Tech. They would tell you what to think and when. All other thought would be rendered impossible, even subconsciously. In Nineteen Eighty Four, Orwell visualized Big Brother’s agents watching everyone’s faces through the telescreen. Anyone who was guilty of face crime, a flicker of doubt against Big Brother, a lack of enthusiasm towards him, would be vaporized. Therein you see the essential gap in Orwell’s dystopian vision. Big Brother could never have found enough agents to watch everyone and then keep all those agents vigilant and loyal to him.

That gap can now be filled. Algorithms can analyze the expressions of seven billion people at the same time. And algorithms never get sleepy or lazy or disloyal.

The right wing worldwide fears that Big Tech would install a politician from the opposing camp as President or Prime Minister. In truth, that is the least of our problems. The worry is not that someone from a left wing party will become Prime Minister. The real worry is that it would not matter at all who is Prime Minister. Because Big Tech would run everything on a global scale.

Second, Big Tech could sell us all out to China. Big Tech has a big problem too. To start building their power, they need a democratic society to begin with. China would never allow Big Tech to build itself up to a position from where they could challenge government authority. They would send the tech giants into “enforced supervision” long before that.

But Big Tech also needs China and its huge market. They could solve the problem by making a deal with China. Big Tech (negotiating on behalf of the formerly free world) could form a cartel with the Chinese government. Who is the Indian government to ban Chinese apps? Big Tech would ban the Indian government and make Chinese apps compulsory.

Third, social media could split along ideological lines, like mainstream media. Once upon a time, everyone, whether left or right, lived in the same media space and watched the same news. In the US, Walter Cronkite read out the nightly news on CBS. That was the 60s. In India, even after the monopoly of Doordarshan ended, we still got the same news for a few years. A certain worldview clearly dominated, but because of the universal nature of the news, they had to at least maintain a semblance of neutrality. But then, the left began to pull harder and harder at the drawstrings. The media space turned into an ideological cage.

And then it split wide open. In the US, Fox News burst on the scene, wearing its right wing political affiliation on its sleeve. In post-2014 India, we have seen a similar explosion on cable news. Now, the left gets left wing content on TV and the right gets right wing content on TV. Everyone is openly partisan, whether on this side or the other.

What happened to mainstream media decades ago could be happening to social media now. Social media used to be a shared space for people of both ideologies. But as with mainstream media, the left is now pulling the noose too hard. Will openly right wing social media spring up so that the two sides no longer have to talk to each other? We will see.

I must point out here that the “right” suffers from a structural disadvantage in this sphere. The internet is global, while the “right” in each country is local. While we can imagine an international left wing social media network, the right wing in each country might need its own network. Will that happen? Or will the “right” recognize the problem and start building some kind of international solidarity of their own? Such international right wing solidarity has seen some takers in Europe, probably because the individual countries in Europe are ultimately very similar. Could it work with India and the United States? Only time can tell.

In conclusion, the right should not make the same mistake with Big Tech that the left made with the knowledge economy. The way the left frames issues has remained frozen in the times of the industrial revolution. Asking for things like fixed workdays and fixed work hours in return for fixed compensation makes sense if your work is shoveling coal into a locomotive engine. When the economy became full of knowledge workers, the demands of the left stopped making sense. How would you tell a computer programmer to have ideas only between 9 AM and 5 PM five days a week, with a 1 hour break for lunch? The left began to lose relevance on economic issues, because all their ideas were so outdated.

At the moment, the same could be happening to the right. The right is still stuck in time, framing issues in terms of rights of free enterprise. Those issues don’t make sense in a world dominated by Big Tech. It is time for the right to rethink everything it stands for.

Abhishek Banerjee: Abhishek Banerjee is a columnist and author.