Censorship by proxy: How big tech and billionaires dodge First Amendment laws and engage in censorship on the platforms where most of us get our news

Adapted from Project Censored’s “State of the Free Press 2023”

Despite the promise of boundless access to information, Silicon Valley mirrors legacy media in its consolidated ownership and privileging of elite narratives. This new class of billionaire oligarchs owns or controls the most popular media platforms, including the companies often referred to as the FAANGs—Facebook (Meta), Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (Alphabet). Their CEOs are routinely lionized in popular culture and the press as intrepid entrepreneurs, inventors of today’s must-have tools for work and play, and stewards of the public square. They include, but are not limited to Bill Gates (Microsoft, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), Mark Zuckerberg (Meta, Facebook, Instagram), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon, the Washington Post)—all of whom are deeply involved and invested in computer software, social media platforms, and the worldwide web itself (e.g., Alphabet, the parent company of Google and YouTube).

Through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates has provided $319 million to fund news outlets, journalism centers and training programs, press associations, and specific media campaigns around the world. Zuckerberg hired “fact checkers” from the Atlantic Council (a NATO lobby group) and, in the name of combating online “misinformation,” has stifled and deplatformed countless independent news voices, mostly those critical of US foreign policy, official narratives around COVID-19, and other controversial issues.22

Resembling previous generations of billionaires who owned legacy media outlets, today’s digital tech titans blur the lines between journalism, entertainment, and consumption (of goods and information). They increasingly partner with the military–industrial complex in service of “national security” and state surveillance. They also aim to collect and monetize any available information about the people who use their platforms. As critics including Shoshana Zuboff, Alan MacLeod, and Nolan Higdon have noted, Big Tech billionaires harvest and exploit our online data for profit, political influence, and social control, a power dynamic Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.”

In the process, Big Tech giants and their oligarchic owners now engage in a new type of censorship, which we have called “censorship by proxy.” Censorship by proxy describes restrictions on freedom of information undertaken by private corporations that exceed limits on governmental censorship and serve both corporate and government or third-party interests. Censorship by proxy is not subject to venerable First Amendment proscriptions on government interference with freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

Censorship by proxy alerts us to the power of economic entities that are not normally recognized as “gatekeepers.” For example, in 2022, the digital financial service PayPal (whose founders include Peter Thiel and Elon Musk) froze the accounts of Consortium News and MintPress News for “unspecified offenses” and “risks” associated with their accounts, a ruling that prevented both independent news outlets from using funds maintained by PayPal. Consortium News and MintPress News have each filed critical news stories and commentary on the foreign policy objectives of the United States and NATO; PayPal issued notices to each news outlet, stating that, in addition to suspending their accounts, it might also seize their assets for “damages.” Joe Lauria, editor in chief of Consortium News, said he believed this was a case of “ideological policing.” Mnar Adley, head of MintPress News, warned, “The sanctions-regime war is coming home to hit the bank accounts of watchdog journalists.”

But PayPal’s freeze on the accounts of MintPress News and Consortium News was not even the most glaring example of censorship by proxy in the past year. Instead, that (dis)honor goes to the Big Tech platforms and media companies that launched a massive campaign of online censorship in the fateful aftermath of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in early 2022. DirectTV, Roku, Sling TV, and Dish each dropped RT America from their platforms in protest against the Russian invasion. In the name of fighting alleged Russian propaganda and disinformation (and following the lead of the European Union), YouTube disappeared entire Russian channels—including RT America and Sputnik—and those channels’ archives, to great applause from various sectors of the American public, especially liberals.

RT America was seen by many as anti-US propaganda, but as the French philosopher Jacques Ellul reminds us, the most potent propaganda is factual, if not totalizing. Both views can be true—RT America purveyed propaganda and provided factual reporting and informed perspectives from many Western critics of US empire. It is also true that Russia’s authoritarian government has undertaken horrendous crackdowns on press freedoms and civil liberties, and that, under President Vladimir Putin, the flow of news and opinion has long been influenced, if not outright controlled, by the state.

Anyone who opposes censorship, human rights abuses, and imperialism should be appalled by Putin’s authoritarian rule; the regime’s pervasive attacks on press freedom and journalists (which include bans on journalists’ use of specific words, such as “war” and “invasion,” backed by the threat of fifteen-year prison terms); its inhumane treatment of Russia’s LQBTQIA+ community, including a “gay purge” in the Chechen Republic; and its latest crackdown, on citizens who publicly oppose their nation’s assault on Ukraine—not to mention the illegal and immoral invasion itself.

However, the response in the United States to RT America and other media outlets whose reporting calls into question US foreign policy should not be to follow Putin’s authoritarian approach of suppressing and criminalizing dissident perspectives. As journalist Matt Taibbi warns, that path leads to US citizens becoming the “doublethinkers” whom George Orwell’s 1984 grimly portrayed.34

Mickey Huff is director of Project Censored and president of the Media Freedom Foundation. To date, he has coedited fourteen volumes of Project Censored’s annual book and contributed numerous chapters to these works dating back to 2008. He is coauthor with Nolan Higdon of United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (and what we can do about it) [City Lights Books, 2019]; and Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy (Routledge, 2022). He is professor of social science, history, and journalism at Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he is chair of the journalism department.

Andy Lee Roth is the associate director of Project Censored, where he helps coordinate the Project’s Campus Affiliates Program, a news media research network of several hundred students and faculty at two dozen colleges and universities across North America. In addition to coediting State of the Free Press 2023 and twelve previous editions of Project Censored’s yearbook, his research and writing have appeared in a variety of outlets, including Index on Censorship, In These Times, YES! Magazine, Media, Culture & Society, and the International Journal of Press/Politics.

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