The Deplatforming of America

For a moment as brief as it was recent, the prospects of Catholics in the American public square looked better than they ever had. Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Catholic mother, was nominated and confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court. U.S. Attorney General William Barr was speaking frequently about the place of people of faith—and of their faith itself—in civic life. Conversations on the right about public morality gained momentum rapidly before finally taking hold. In that moment, something like victory seemed to be on the horizon.

So much for that. If there is any victory to be had in this moment, it is not ours. With the Senate, House, and Executive Branch soon to be held by the secular left—a left that is growing ever more radical and ever more hostile to the public claims of Catholics—it is clear that our place will be, at least for the next four years, as outsiders.

This is hardly unfamiliar. The Kingdom we seek and serve is not of this world, though of course we would prefer that this world’s kingdoms reflect it in their character. When they do not (as is most often the case) it is our duty to oppose. But just what will opposition look like in the incoming regime?

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If the last week is any indication, whatever it looks like, it’s not going to be easy.

As everybody surely knows by now, on Wednesday, January 6th a crowd composed primarily of President Trump’s supporters staged a protest at the Capitol which ended with a small group entering the building, some minor vandalism, and the shooting by police of an unarmed woman. Four others, including one police officer, died during the event. I was there; it wasn’t pretty.

But the consequences of that unpleasant episode are apt to be worse than the incident itself. America’s rulers—not just political elites like Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, and Joe Biden, but legacy media and Big Tech oligarchs—wept over the desecration of the sacred Temple of Democracy, then quickly spun the opportunity to propose, and even begin to initiate, a broad societal purge.

It began with the president himself, whose Facebook and Twitter accounts were shut down under the pretext that he had incited Wednesday’s riot. Though attempts to blame the president for what happened are either ignorantly or intentionally hyperbolic, even supporters should be able to admit that parts of his speech on Wednesday were reckless and imprudent; but the tech platforms’ response is actually rather more so. The hasty, summary removal of the sitting president of the United States from two key public fora sets a dangerous precedent that bodes ill for all dissidents in whatever further troubles may be coming.

The underlying political question is complicated: how much power should Internet companies—whose share of the public sphere grows broader every day—have to restrict activity within their systems? As behemoths like Twitter and Facebook begin to blur the line between public and private (especially in the age of COVID-19 lockdowns, when the lion’s share of social—and even political—activity necessarily occurs online) it is becoming ever more untenable to hold that such corporations have no internal obligation to protect the rights and freedoms of their users.

Just before his permanent ban from Twitter, President Trump had posted a video condemning Wednesday’s riot and committing to a peaceful transition of power on January 20th. Nonetheless, Twitter determined that allowing his continued use of the site would run the risk of fomenting further violence. The immediate effect of the bans has been remarkable: virtual radio silence from the White House. The denial of such substantial avenues of public communication to the president of all people is just as unprecedented in recent history as is the storming of the Capitol, and the consequences are difficult to predict—though they’re not likely to be good.

Already, the purge has been extended well beyond the person of the president, and well beyond the justification of the riot. A great many conservative accounts were apparently wiped out of existence, with some right-leaning users reporting as many as thousands of their followers disappearing from the network. 

Even more troubling, though, is that Parler, an alternative social network established by conservatives, has actually been removed from the Internet. First, it was banned from both Google and Apple app stores for alleged failure to moderate extreme content; then Sunday, its web hosting by Amazon Web Services was revoked for the same reason, forcing the alternative network to go offline altogether. The complete suspension of one of the few alternatives to the Facebook-Twitter oligopoly gives the lie to disingenuous suggestions that dissidents should just create their own social networks.

We can hardly create real, physical social networks, given government restrictions on travel, commerce, and everything in between under the pretext of the pandemic. Even in an age unriddled by COVID-19, it would likely be impossible to build anything on the ground with a reasonable hope of rivaling the networking capacity of the online powers that be. And to create anything online, as we have seen so clearly this week, can only be done with the consent of those who rule the Internet.

It’s a truly massive power, one we are only beginning to comprehend. In some ways it even rivals the State’s: with the online world becoming ever more important, power over it means power over huge sections of people’s lives. Banishment of anyone from the virtual world—to say nothing of the president—is a serious thing.

We should not delude ourselves about what they might do with this power, or whether they intend to use it at all. The last week has shown us without a doubt that they are ready to employ it when they see fit. With tension and unrest on the rise throughout the country, and an administration cozy with Silicon Valley set to take office this month, it is all but certain that they will see fit more and more often as the months wear on.

Joe Biden has announced his plans to revive President Obama’s campaign against the Little Sisters of the Poor for the crime of objecting to contraception. Kamala Harris has questioned the fitness of Catholics for public office due to the “extremism” of the Church’s teachings, particularly on abortion. What exactly do we expect to happen when such people take the reins of government at precisely the time that their allies tighten their grips on the reins of the virtual world—a world we are increasingly being pushed into, and a world we can rapidly be pushed out of.

If they can cancel the president, they can cancel you. And don’t think for a second that they won’t.

[Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

  • Declan Leary

    Mr. Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative.

tagged as: Politics

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