Over the past few years, we have witnessed a growing trend amongst social media companies and other tech giants to censor content. “Big Tech censorship” has become a rallying cry for conservative content creators. This practice has the overt effect of silencing conservative voices, but it also has a potentially more powerful consequence – a chilling effect on speech.
The chilling effect is often defined as “a usually undesirable discouraging effect or influence.” In politics and policy, the term is mostly used to label the actions of a government that intentionally or even inadvertently stifles free expression. An example of this practice can be seen in Cuba. When the Cuban government cracks down on a journalist critical of the ruling regime, this sends a warning to other journalists in the country to tread lightly on certain topics out of fear they may be the next to be targeted. The effect of the original specific crackdown is to stifle speech more generally across all media in the country.
Like it or not, the censorship of conservative voices by Big Tech is having the same effect.
Recently, comedian and popular podcast host Joe Rogan was once again caught up in controversy over a series of guests he interviewed on his wildly successful and influential show. The interviews, which covered topics including COVID-19, vaccines, and lockdowns, caused several musicians to pull, or threaten to pull, their music from Spotify – the platform that hosts Rogan’s podcast.
As a result of the controversy, Spotify announced new guidelines. The changes include a content advisory warning be included in any discussion regarding COVID-19. While these new guidelines are far less draconian than restrictions found on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter, they still surely send a message to Rogan and other content creators to proceed with caution when discussing certain topics.
On platforms like YouTube, the penalties for speaking about controversial topics are far more serious.
Many content creators make money off of their YouTube content. In some cases, these creators can make a living off the income generated by ads that play during their posted videos. If you violate the community guidelines of YouTube too often, you run the risk of having your entire channel deleted.
This is the situation I found myself in this past week.
Every week, I host the “In The Tank” podcast. During the show, we discuss multiple political and policy-based topics. As you might expect, COVID-19 has been a frequently discussed and debated topic in the past several months. Last week, after finishing up a show, I was notified by YouTube that our latest episode was removed for “COVID misinformation” and our channel was given a strike. This was the second strike our channel had received in a relatively short period.
The message from YouTube was not specific as to where we crossed the line when it comes to its community guidelines. I was left to guess which statement earned us this second strike.
Out of fear my show would lead to the permanent deletion of our whole organization’s channel, I began to think of what I should do to steer clear of this scenario. Should I just not talk about COVID-19 anymore? Should I not discuss articles critical of lockdowns or vaccine mandates?
Then it hit me. I was a victim of the Big tech chilling effect. This slap on the wrist from YouTube was going to change the entire way I conducted my own show. I was considering self-censorship out of fear of a future crackdown. The strike given by YouTube had the overt objective of removing this specific video, but it also aimed to stifle my speech in every subsequent video.
For countless content creators and conservative voices, these threats have likely achieved the intended goal. How many content creators have been too scared to discuss a certain topic out of fear their livelihood would be taken from them? How many important articles have been ignored because discussing them could open someone up to potential repercussions from Big tech? How much has the official mainstream media narrative been affected by the chilling effect?
Ironically, we may never know the full answers to these questions due to the lack of transparency and less robust societal dialogue that the chilling effect is meant to proliferate.
Donald Kendal (firstname.lastname@example.org) is graphic designer for The Heartland Institute, a research fellow for Heartland’s Socialism Research Center, and the host of Heartland’s “In the Tank” podcast and Stopping Socialism TV.