(Source: Heritage Foundation)
While the world fixates on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a huge threat is gathering here at home.
As Canada demonstrated, Western governments and tech companies are mobilizing to cut off mainstream citizens from public life and constrain their private lives. Actions like protesting government overreach, expressing “anti-authority” ideologies, or even sharing “disinformation” on social media may now be classified as terrorism. This is all typical of totalitarian regimes, which aim to bring “all aspects of society under the control of an ideology.” As author Rod Dreher notes, “a totalitarian state … aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality.” Sound familiar?
We must immediately arrest this momentum toward a social credit system of our own. Otherwise, we risk mirroring China, where the integration of public and private spheres has created the most efficient tech-enabled totalitarianism known to man—all aimed at social control. In the United States, the increasingly oppressive collaboration between public and private entities is not enforced at the barrel of a gun. It arises from an ideological symbiosis between tech incumbents and government officials. This has allowed governments to successfully encourage tech companies to help police the discourse of ordinary Americans.
For example, White House press secretary Jen Psaki admitted in July that the White House works with Facebook to monitor and police speech and later insisted that other private platforms should be “doing more” of the same. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas indicated his organization was working with tech companies to strengthen “legitimate use” of private platforms. Twitter reportedly deferred to the California Secretary of State’s office when flagging and scrutinizing questions surrounding the 2020 election and criticism of President Biden.
These tech companies—which control the rails of communication upon which many Americans (and billions around the world) rely—monitor viewpoints to see whether they conform to leftist politicians’ version of reality. If it’s a ruling class narrative, tech companies defend it. If it departs from the “approved” line—e.g., by suggesting the possibility of a coronavirus lab leak, repeating the New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop, or rejecting the existence of biological differences between men and women—it is suppressed.
The ideological collaboration goes far beyond social-media censorship. The Chinese system of blacklists ultimately limits job advancement, real estate purchases, travel, ability to get a loan and more. In the West, censorship measures have extended to online banking, web hosting and email delivery services. GoFundMe, buckling to pressure from the Canadian government and Ottawa police, froze millions of dollars meant for the Canadian Freedom Convoy. Other companies—like Airbnb, PayPal, Stripe, MailChimp and GoDaddy—continue to purge accounts to the right of center up and down the digital stack.
Such expansive vulnerability engenders self-censorship. Americans are learning the hard way that they risk their ability to support charities, rent homes, fundraise online, bank and even earn a living should they dissent from the prevailing leftist orthodoxy enforced by the government and private companies working hand-in-glove. And we are in uncharted territory when one market-dominant company (or multiple companies within a specific market) decides it’s better to go along with the preferences of the government than side with individual citizens. It leaves those individuals with nowhere else to go.
What comes next? We are on the slippery slope to social credit scoring, where “wrong-think” leads to undesirable consequences. Will your individual Climate Compliance Score be satisfactory? Suppose you use too much heat this winter. Sorry, can’t get a bank loan to buy that new house. Pump too much gas for your family’s road trip? Apologies, no airline tickets for you next summer.
Americans must recognize what is happening and combat it more effectively. If we do not take strong measures to respond to this new and singular problem—which is as much a political, cultural and moral issue as an economic one—then we forfeit our ability to govern ourselves.
Research Fellow in the Center for Technology Policy at The Heritage Foundation. She previously worked for the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), Facebook, and the U.S. Department of Defense. BA in Foreign Affairs and History (University of Virginia) and MA in War Studies (King's College London).