Media

Conservatives lean into warnings on 'wave of censorship'

Conservative lawmakers and media outlets are leaning hard into the idea that they're being silenced by Big Tech and corporate media, an argument that resonates with the grass-roots base at a time when anger is running hot over how President Trump was treated while he was in office.

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch is warning about a "wave of censorship that seeks to silence conversation." That message has dominated Fox News Channel's prime-time lineup, where Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are issuing seething nightly screeds about "the silencing" of conservatives through bans on social media and political boycotts.

Before he became known for challenging the outcome of the Electoral College vote count, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) saw his star rise on the right by crusading against Big Tech censorship. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also took up the censorship mantle early in the Trump years, helping him to connect with the GOP base.

The storming of the U.S. Capitol by a mob enraged by Trump's false election claims has emboldened the tech giants and liberal critics of conservative media to push for new restrictions on misinformation and extremism on the right.

Trump's removal from Facebook and Twitter, and Amazon's de-platforming of Parler, were controversial moves that have further enflamed Republican anger at Silicon Valley.

GOP pollsters say censorship is the top issue animating the conservative base and that it will define Republican politics in the next presidential cycle.

"This will be the defining issue for conservatives going forward in the same way that immigration was the defining issue that catapulted Donald Trump in 2016," said Trump pollster Jim McLaughlin. "The issue of freedom of speech and taking on Big Tech, it's top of mind for conservatives, but also I think for regular voters in battlegrounds that feel like something is wrong. I don't think the media and Big Tech have any idea about the can of worms they've opened."

Liberal media watchers say crackdowns are justified given the way they say social media and conservative media outlets have allowed dangerous conspiracy theories to ferment. They say the Jan. 6 riot, in which five people died, were a tipping point that exposes the real-world dangers at play.

"We're living now with the consequences of this experiment of misinformation and extremism that was allowed to boil over," said Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters for America, which has organized boycotts of Fox News. "Now we've reached the tipping point. The right is bugging out and trying to frame this as cancel culture, but I think they're missing just how angry everyone is at them right now."

Free-market advocacy groups also dispute the idea that social media blacklisting is a form of censorship.

The First Amendment protects against government censorship, but private companies are not required to publish commentary they fear could be harmful to their bottom lines.

"These companies are private and have every right to not carry speech they don't want," said Jessica Melugin, the associate director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Center for Technology and Innovation. "I don't want to minimize the feelings and frustrations people have with these platforms, which are sincere, but at the end of the day this is a business decision."

Conservatives say their political enemies are using the Jan. 6 riot to push for previously unimaginable crackdowns, including on Fox News, the top news source for a majority of conservatives.

Fox has survived many boycotts before and makes a tremendous amount of its money from cable fees, which are separate from its advertising revenue.

And Fox News believes any move by the carriers to pull their network would not hold up in court, given anti-trust laws that prevent cable providers that own Fox's rivals from giving a competitive advantage to their own programs.

Regardless, Fox is trumpeting the attacks from their rivals as evidence of an attempt to silence conservatives.

Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp., also owns the New York Post, which ran a story about Hunter Biden during the presidential campaign that was essentially blacklisted by the social media giants.

"This rigidly enforced conformity, aided and abetted by so-called social media, is a straitjacket on sensibility," Murdoch said over the weekend. "Too many people have fought too hard in too many places for freedom of speech to be suppressed by this awful woke orthodoxy."

Critics roll their eyes at the notion that one of the world's most powerful publishers could be silenced.

Figures like Trump have as big a platform as they desire even after being blackballed by social media. Trump could hold a press conference that would earn wall-to-wall coverage or sit for an interview with any media outlet that will have him.

But conservatives say the downstream effect is where the problem lies, citing instances where ordinary people with small followings lose their jobs for expressing unorthodox political views or are swept up in a social media purge.

Free speech advocates warn about the slippery slope in restraining political commentary that falls outside the mainstream.

The social media crackdown has also ensnared some left-wing content, with Facebook recently provoking a firestorm of controversy for shutting down socialist web pages, including the popular World Socialist Web Site.

Civil liberties advocates say there is no easy fix.

Ira Glasser, the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new media landscape has been so thoroughly disrupted by the social media giants that there is no clear-cut answer about how to balance speech concerns with the desire to stop the spread of dangerous misinformation.

"What Facebook and Twitter did is perfectly legal and not really different from what a publisher or broadcaster would do if they decided to change or fire one of their anchors or columnists," Glasser said this week on the "Joe Rogan Experience" podcast this week.

"On the other hand, they are sort of like a platform or electronic soap box they erected in the park, and invited anybody and everybody to come, and when they start picking and choosing ... when they start being a gatekeeper, you run the risk of them closing people out of a national dialogue and depriving people of an audience. That's a problem and it's a problem we haven't figured out how to work out yet." 

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