Can you imagine how scary it would be to live in a world where your livelihood depended on having the ‘correct’ politics? It’s the sort of thing you might expect of totalitarian regimes: Ba’athist Iraq under Saddam Hussein; everywhere that has ever tried communism; increasingly, Xi Jinping’s panopticon China — but definitely not of any liberal democracy in the 21st century.
That dystopian future, though, may be much closer than you think. I only properly appreciated this recently when the podcast I’ve been doing for the past few years was mysteriously dropped by my regular employer, forcing me to seek funding sources from elsewhere.
If I were impeccably ‘progressive’, this would be a doddle. I could monetise my content through ads on YouTube, I could crowdfund donations through Patreon, I could promote my work with regular appearances on Sky and the BBC. But if you’re snarky and irreverent and you won’t play the virtue-signalling game your options are more limited. Any deviation from the path of ‘woke’ righteousness, even just a misjudged joke or a remark taken out of context, can get you branded a ‘far-right’ extremist and your audience won’t be allowed to pay you even if they want to.
This is what happened last month to the blogger/vidcaster Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, whose long-form meditations on everything from Brexit and feminism to Islam and video game politics have won him nearly 900,000 subscribers on YouTube. Benjamin’s primary funding source was Patreon, a website that enables donors to support projects with monthly contributions. But when one of Benjamin’s critics unearthed some audio of intemperate remarks he’d made in the course of an interview in which he’d defended himself against neo-Nazis, Patreon deplatformed him for breaching its terms of service.
Benjamin’s defenestration needs to be understood in the context of a much wider ongoing purge of right-wing voices by Silicon Valley, which now likes to see itself as the world’s liberal bulwark against the dark, populist forces supposedly unleashed by Donald Trump. Superficially, this might sound reasonable. As even our conservative tabloids are wont to ask, ‘When, oh when, are social media giants going to do more to combat hate speech?’ The more important question though is: ‘Who gets to decide what is hate speech?’ From YouTube and Twitter to Facebook and Patreon, Silicon Valley’s answer seems to be: the kind of social justice warriors who think any viewpoint to the right of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn is literally Hitler.
Innocence is no defence against these bansturbatory zealots. Benjamin isn’t even right wing but a leftist libertarian whose schtick is simply to question the received wisdoms of our time. But just suppose for a moment that he were ‘hard right’, ought that even then to give Patreon the right to censor him? Since when did tech sites acquire the function of moral guardians? And when they do, aren’t they creating an even greater injustice than they are purporting to address? Isn’t this war they are conducting on free speech precisely the kind of oppressive authoritarianism that liberal Silicon Valley types ought to deplore?
Among those riding to the defence of Benjamin were two of Patreon’s leading beneficiaries, author and academic Jordan Peterson and vidcaster Dave Rubin. They are trying to launch an alternative crowd-funding platform to Patreon, one untainted by political bias. But this may not be easy because the rot goes much deeper than Patreon. The real pressure, it seems, comes from the payment providers — Visa, Discover, PayPal, especially Mastercard — which have taken to using financial blacklisting as a way of enforcing progressive ideology.
There isn’t space here to discuss why they are doing it. It is simply an observable fact that, as tech writer Allum Bokhari puts it, ‘It has become increasingly difficult for individuals engaged in controversial yet lawful speech to fund their activities online.’ Even liberals are starting to worry. Banks and credit card companies, says the left-leaning Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), have become ‘de facto internet censors’.
No one is safe from this growing censorship, not even, potentially, the biggest internet star of them all, PewDiePie, a Swedish comedian with 77 million subscribers on YouTube and nearly 20 billion total views: three views for every human on the planet.
Yet still, for all his massive popularity, and despite the ostensibly apolitical nature of his japesome content, PewDiePie is threatened by the New Puritanism. Sure, an attempt by the left-wing website Vox Media to smear him as a Nazi sympathiser failed (not least, due to lack of evidence). But it won’t be the last for, as Allen Farrington puts it in a recent Quillette profile, PewDiePie regularly commits the crime of being funny. ‘And the online corporate giants have no idea what to do with humour’ — especially when it’s used to critique their opaque monetisation, copyright and content restrictions, and to mock their leftist sacred cows.
So the battle lines for free speech in 2019 have been drawn: on the one side Silicon Valley and its authoritarian ‘progressive’ sympathisers everywhere from academe to the card payment processing industry; on the other, all those people who’d prefer the internet to be a place where they are free to make whatever jokes they like, express whatever viewpoint they like and fund whichever creatives they like.