Objects of Power

You may have heard that, several months ago, Glenn Greenwald was told by a senior editor at the Intercept, a publication he co-founded, to correct some factually-dubious claims in his work. He claimed this amounted to censorship and quit in a huff to start a new column on Substack with maybe a few friends. For months now, he has sent email newsletters to subscribers with a typically fervent and melodramatic flair. Consider this recent piece which posits that:

  1. The outgoing administration was pretty typical for a U.S. presidency, and to imply that it flirted with authoritarian policies is an irresponsible exaggeration.

  2. The real authoritarians are the executive teams of big tech companies and the incoming administration.

Like many of Greenwald’s columns, there are elements of truth to both of these statements, which have been shorn of context then, depending on the point he is attempting to make, either magnified or minimized for full effect.

I promise I won’t get too much into the weeds with my summary of the first half of Greenwald’s essay because it is the second half that interests me more.1 However, to substantiate the first argument, Greenwald says that the president’s rhetoric often did not match the actions of his administration. For example, though the president repeatedly floated the idea of banning followers of the world’s second-largest religion from entering the United States, the eventual policy amounted to banning travellers from some majority Muslim countries. That is certainly not fair, but the Supreme Court upheld the president’s right to control the borders and, to Greenwald, that means the outgoing president did not display any more of an authoritarian streak than his predecessors that did not attempt to ban entire religions:

Whether Trump secretly harbored despotic ambitions is both unknowable and irrelevant. If he did, he never exhibited the slightest ability to carry them out or orchestrate a sustained commitment to executing a democracy-subverting plot. And the most powerful U.S. institutions — the intelligence community and military brass, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the corporate media — opposed and subverted him from the start. In sum, U.S. democracy, in whatever form it existed when Trump ascended to the presidency, will endure more or less unchanged once he leaves office on January 20, 2021.

It is not “unknowable” whether he had “despotic ambitions” — it is right there in his speeches and actions, however limp, fact-free, and legally-dubious they were. In the paragraph that precedes this, Greenwald brushes aside the multiple lawsuits filed by this president’s failed reelection campaign because they were implausible.2 But they were real lawsuits because the president really does not want to leave this job. He likes power; you can tell by his, as ProPublica put it, “last-minute killing spree”. It is incorrect to call him an authoritarian. But it is completely accurate to say that he moved more explicitly in that direction than previous administrations, and it is only because of activists and journalists like, yes, Greenwald that checks and balances were mobilized to mollify some of the excesses of this administration.

It is also not irrelevant. This administration is a wake-up call to those in the United States and around the world living in what we like to consider stable advanced democracies that there are politicians with similar and greater ambitions of power. Those people are not as unelectable as we would like to believe. It is also a reminder that the press ought to subject the incoming administration to similar scrutiny. McKay Coppins, the Atlantic:

Yamiche Alcindor, a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, told me she hopes her colleagues will retain the lessons they’ve learned from covering Trump. The default skepticism toward government officials, the aversion to euphemism, the refusal to accept approved narratives—to Alcindor, these are features of a healthy press, not signs that something is amiss. She attributes this attitude to her background covering race and policing. “When something is racist, we should just say it’s racist,” she said. “When someone is lying, we should just say they’re lying.” (Trump has repeatedly singled Alcindor out at press conferences, calling her “threatening” and her questions “nasty.”)

It is Greenwald’s second point which is why I felt compelled to write this, though. I have written extensively about the worries I have about monopolistic companies — particularly in tech and tech-adjacent fields like telecommunications, because that is the kind of column this is — and also about platforms’ failed moderation policies. These are inherently related concepts: as platforms become bigger, their small-scale moderation failures also grow; and, as more communications pass through those platforms, any intervention can appear to be censorship, even when it is not:

As I told the online program Rising this week when asked what the worst media failings of 2020 are, I continue to view the brute censorship by Facebook of incriminating reporting about Joe Biden in the weeks before the election as one of the most significant, and menacing, political events of the last several years. That this censorship was announced by a Facebook corporate spokesman who had spent his career previously as a Democratic Party apparatchik provided the perfect symbolic expression of this evolving danger.

In the Rising clip, Greenwald goes further: first, by misrepresenting other reporting about the New York Post story in question, and also by claiming that Facebook and Twitter “censored the internet” because they algorithmically limited the story’s spread or prevented links to it from being posted. I am still uncertain about whether it was a good idea for either company to attempt to restrict the spread of that story. The closest analogy I can think of is when a stock market or a regulatory body suspends trading of a particular company’s shares because of breaking news.

Twitter, in particular, has become more assertive in labelling tweets that have the potential to spread misinformation. Most notably, it has labelled tweets from the president and other elected officials, as a sort of compromise between removing tweets and leaving these statements up to spread with impunity from figures of authority.

These are only symptom of a much wider problem. These platforms are built for engagement and have few controls to counter bad faith exploitation. There are parallels to this in live television coverage of the president’s rallies, which were often broadcast in full between 2015 and throughout his presidency. That meant that the president was free for ninety minutes to present blatant lies with unprecedented volume before a national audience, only to have news anchors struggle to rebut even a fraction of those claims. Print publications were better suited to contextualize the same statements because they are inherently slower. That does not mean they always — or even often — succeeded, however.

This pandemic brought new waves of misinformation that platforms struggled to control. It is one thing if it is about an election in one country; the stakes are much higher when public health is at risk. Taking a hands-off approach would be a callous display of irresponsibility.3 In a situation that requires nuanced expertise, there is not an open marketplace of ideas for everyone to participate in. Subject matter experts may get things wrong, but it is not because they lack fundamental knowledge. One person’s lightly-informed speculation is not a valid counterargument to an expert’s advice.

The biggest platforms — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube — have engaged in more public moderation of users’ posts this year than at any time before. The executives of these companies are able to influence which posts are promoted and which are demoted. But, contrary to Greenwald’s assertion, none of this can reasonably be called “censorship”, and it is a wild stretch to call executives “authoritarian” and equate it with the behaviour of governments. You may not have been able to share that Hunter Biden story in the New York Post for a few hours, but the Post still has one of the highest circulations of any newspaper in the English-speaking world. Your cousin’s tweet linking this pandemic to, of all things, cellphone towers may have a fact-checking label appended, but they can still post about it. And it seems that this more careful approach to moderation might improve the competitiveness of the social networking space as users flock to ostensibly “unmoderated” platforms — which, in turn, will step up their moderation efforts, just differently. Ironically, these concerns about platform “censorship” are instead creating more options for hosting and sharing. I welcome the narrowing focus of what is allowed on the biggest platforms to lessen their powerful catch-all nature.

But it also has the side effect of putting big public companies between users and the publication of their thoughts, appointing themselves as ultimate arbiters of what they want to see on their platforms. That is difficult and something they will get wrong from time to time, but it is also their prerogative, and it is not as though there are no alternative avenues for publishing. There are other social networks that are vastly smaller, and there are few obstacles to self-publishing. Greenwald writes on Substack, for example, which is an all-in-one product for getting text and images to people; my own website requires moderately more configuration, but I have more control than Greenwald. These alternatives are not as popular and require more promotion, often using bigger platforms. Still, none of this amounts to censorship.

As I have written before, I think the world would, in very general terms, be better served by smaller and more specialized companies. It is completely reasonable to be skeptical of the control held by conglomerates like Google — and Comcast, for that matter. But calling them and the incoming administration “authoritarian”, as Greenwald does in the closing paragraphs of this piece, is a ridiculous assertion, as much if not more so than the flirtations with fascist aspirations of the outgoing administration that Greenwald is so quick to wave away. There are many reasons to wish for greater intervention to reduce monopolization and concentration of power. But it is patently untrue that free expression is somehow more limited for Americans now than it was last year or ten years ago, and the most concerning threat to that has bipartisan support.

What I find so frustrating about this piece is that there is so much I would agree with in Greenwald’s article, if only the histrionics were dialled back by about fifty percent. A similar if more sober observation about these platforms’ gatekeeping characteristics was published by Ben Smith in the New York Times earlier this year. Among this pandemic’s more concerning long-term qualities is how much it increased dependence on big companies — partly because of the economies of scale, partly because of their supply chains, and partly because a large store operating at reduced capacity is still a large store that can fit many people. Working from home also means increased dependency on big communications companies. The outgoing U.S. administration tested the limits of existing powers already held by government. But Greenwald’s obsession with being a permanent contrarian obscures these quite reasonable points with alarmism and misdirection.

  1. My head throbs when I read Greenwald’s screeds, even when our opinions overlap. For what it is worth, there is much to like about the substance of this piece. I only wish Greenwald employed the services of an editor. And, yes, I recognize the irony. ↥︎

  2. Greenwald:

    The last gasp for those clinging to the Trump-as-dictator fantasy (which was really hope masquerading as concern, since putting yourself on the front lines, bravely fighting domestic fascism, is more exciting and self-glorifying, not to mention more profitable, than the dreary, mediocre work of railing against an ordinary and largely weak one-term president) was the hysterical warning that Trump was mounting a coup in order to stay in office. Trump’s terrifying “coup” consisted of a series of failed court challenges based on claims of widespread voter fraud — virtually inevitable with new COVID-based voting rules never previously used — and lame attempts to persuade state officials to overturn certified vote totals. There was never a moment when it appeared even remotely plausible that it would succeed, let alone that he could secure the backing of the institutions he would need to do so, particularly senior military leaders.

    One could point out that it is “hope masquerading as concern” and “exciting and self-glorifying” to find an excuse to leave a publication one co-founded because an editor wanted to stick to fact-based analysis instead of extending ultraprocessed grains of truth, only to begin a paid Substack newsletter gig that, by one’s own admission, was already in the works:

    Prior to the extraordinary experience of being censored this week by my own news outlet, I had already been exploring the possibility of creating a new media outlet. I have spent a couple of months in active discussions with some of the most interesting, independent and vibrant journalists, writers and commentators across the political spectrum about the feasibility of securing financing for a new outlet that would be designed to combat these trends.

    But, sure, let’s call it “censorship”. ↥︎

  3. One of the examples Greenwald gives to minimize the president’s authoritarian tendencies was his delayed use of the Defense Production Act to redirect American manufacturing efforts for pandemic-related issues — if he really did have dictatorial aspirations, he would surely jump on that opportunity like a kid in a bouncy castle. Greenwald reframes this one instance where there was bipartisan pleading for the president to be more authoritarian and his refusal to take control over a serious situation as reason to believe he’s just like any other president which, you know, fine.

    But this is a big problem with Greenwald’s simplified use of words like “censor” and “authoritarian”. In the case of a pandemic, we need expert figures that we can trust. You can superficially frame this as becoming “more authoritarian”, but a public health crisis is one instance where there must be candid and unified explanations of risk, prevention methods, and plans — especially since all of those things will change over time with new information.

    This is one thing Greenwald gets absolutely right in his interview on Rising: popular media botched explanations for why political rallies were being cancelled and people were being encouraged to stay away from religious gatherings, yet participation in this summer’s widespread protests against systemic racial injustice was not acknowledged by some of the same outlets as a public health concern. There are, it turns out, key differences between rallies and marched protests that explain why many of the former have been considered “super spreader” events but not the latter, as Lawrence Wright writes in the overwhelming single-essay latest issue of the New Yorker:

    Surprisingly, the marches did not appear to be significant drivers of transmission. “We tested thousands of people,” Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, at the University of Minnesota, said. “We saw no appreciable impact.” One study found lower rates of infection among marchers than in their surrounding communities. Epidemiologists concluded that mask wearing and being outdoors protected the protesters. Moreover, demonstrators were on the move. Osterholm said that people in stationary crowds are more likely to become infected. In other words, joining a protest march is inherently less dangerous than attending a political rally.

    This makes sense, and many of these facts were known at the time, but there was a lacking public dialogue to explain the difference between all of these things. Trusted figures of authority sure would have been helpful.

    Maybe what I meant by “not getting into the weeds” is that the weeds would be entirely in footnotes. ↥︎