October 19, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Some weird things have been happening online recently. If you search for certain words or phrases on Google, you are directed not to the website or news story about the thing you are searching for, but a series of sources attacking or debunking it. When you try to post about certain things on Twitter or Facebook, your followers see your words accompanied by a link to an article attacking what, according to some algorithm, you may be promoting, or else you can find yourself suspended or banned from the platform.

I’m not talking about searching for racist political parties, pornography, or how to make a bomb. This happened to the ‘Great Barrington Declaration’, a statement by a group of scientists about government policy on the coronavirus. Even with the weight of the New York Post behind it, a major story about Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden, disappeared from social media and Google results. Even tweets by President Donald Trump have been vanishing. Rather than expressing concern over this, or countering its effects, mainstream media outlets have in many cases been following the tech companies’ lead in burying particular stories.

This is not wholly new. If you type ‘Hillary Clinton’ into Google, masses of suggested searches pop up. If you type “Hillary Clinton e”, the suggestions suddenly disappear. It’s because you might be about to search for a forbidden topic: the 2016 Presidential candidate’s alleged carelessness with confidential emails.

One odd thing about this is that because it is all done by algorithms—even if the algorithms have themselves been manipulated—it makes no difference if you want to read people defending Hillary Clinton or attacking her on the emails issue. Twitter doesn’t know if you are praising the Great Barrington Declaration or criticizing it. The effect is less to direct a specific debate, but to silence it, which itself serves to distort the wider debate. It means, in fact, that an open debate about the pros and cons of different strategies to combat the epidemic, or the best presidential candidate, is rendered impossible.

As I have written on LifeSite before, I am far from being a free-speech absolutist. My view is that these questions have to be addressed on the basis of prudence. Is this kind of censorship a good idea? What are the effects going to be? 

The hubris of the technology companies at this point is staggering, and it seems to have blinded them to some pretty obvious problems with what they are doing. Assuming they want to help Joe Biden win the presidential election, they really need to think a little further than election day and ask themselves if they want a lot of people who’d supported the other side to come away with the impression that the election had not been won fairly. In any reasonably close election there will be parts of the country overwhelmingly opposed to the winner, and it is essential to the functioning of any state that they accept the legitimacy of the outcome, even if they don’t like it. Wholesale censorship by partisan, private actors who have found themselves in the position of gatekeepers of the internet is going to undermine the popular mandate of their favored candidate, even if he wins.

Similarly, whether it is the coronavirus, global warming, or the safety of vaccines, a widespread impression that our digital masters have stifled the debate is a terrible outcome, because it creates the ideal environment for conspiracy theories.

On none of the substantive issues I have mentioned do I, personally, have the expertise to judge who is right and who is wrong. Then again, I don’t have the expertise to know what the best washing machine might be, let alone what car to buy, and I could easily be deceived by a clever salesman. The way we manage this problem is to allow a debate between experts, and indeed people claiming to be experts, and commentary on their arguments by journalists and popular writers who may know a bit more than we do. In this way a wide range of considerations have some chance of influencing decision-making, from ordinary folks choosing a car, to politicians determining policies. Perhaps Big Tech thinks it can do us a favor by taking one side out of certain debates because it is wrong, but even if it iswrong, the effect of this censorship is to deprive us of the debate.

I never thought I’d have to defend the right of journalists, scientists, and politicians, to argue out the most important issues of the day, about ordinary, empirical, topics. But we have got to the point where it is not the government, but corporations keen to protect elite views from criticism, who are posing a threat, a threat not to some outlandishly extreme conception of free speech, but to the basic mechanisms of civil society.

Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.