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Parler's Cancelling is an Opportunity
Why liberals and progressives should take Parler's de-hosting by as an opportunity to express intellectual and moral consistency
Days after armed insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, Apple and Google removed Parler, a conservative/“free speech” alternative to Twitter, from their App and Play stores respectively. The next day, Amazon Web Services suspended Parler’s web hosting, effectively killing the app until and unless it can find a new provider. This comes, of course, in the context of the Great Deplatforming of Donald Trump after he incited the insurrection.
With the storming and all its aftermath extremely salient in the Discourse, there is no shortage of takes about whether Amazon, Google, and Apple’s actions were justified. I am by no means some great maverick in feeling conflicted between the concerns about Big Tech’s power and the damage that Parler (and other social media platforms) can inflict.
2. No one likes a hypocrite
If you’re like me, you find cynical and opportunistic hypocrisy an outrageous and alarming element of contemporary American politics. I don’t want to “both sides” this; I’m mostly thinking of the Republican Party. When Obama nominated competent, moderate judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Mitch McConnell stated that
“We think the important principle in the middle of this presidential year is that the American people need to weigh in and decide who's going to make this decision. Not this lame duck president on the way out the door, but the next president.”
What happened the next time around, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away during a year that Donald Trump was up for reelection? You guessed it:
"President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”
Note that he did not merely argue in 2016 that it was the Republican Senate’s right to refuse to hold hearings (which is true), but that as a general principle nominees should not be considered during election years. If this isn’t hypocrisy, nothing is.
3. A rare occurrence
It’s not every day that liberals (which I’m using ‘liberally’ to mean anyone who tends to vote Democrat, including progressives and democratic socialists) get the chance to demonstrate sincerity and expand their political coalition. Several conditions need to be satisfied for such an opportunity to arise:
A group (say, liberals) generally believe in some principle, such as “the government should act as a countervailing force to corporate power.”
A situation arises in which adhering to the principle appears to harm an institution, group, or policy that liberals generally support.
Upon reflection, liberals decide that general adherence to the principle is wise, even if it sometimes results in narrow harms.
Everyone (i.e. liberals’ political opponents) knows both (1) and (2).
One of my main arguments here is that it’s rare for all four points to obtain.
The consistency barrier
(2) and (3) occurring together is relatively uncommon because any principle that regularly harms liberal groups or policies will eventually result in the expulsion of the principle, groups, or policies from the canonical “liberal” ideology or coalition. Any belief system, including political ideologies, must be mostly coherent and consistent.
Part of the case for classical liberalism and political pluralism is that it allows the system as a whole to draw on different, conflicting ideologies without any individual having to accept a set of incoherent beliefs.
Some things are worse than hypocrisy, and some things are more important than consistency. We could imagine a world in which Parler was so bad that it would be better to abandon our commitment to limiting corporate power than to accept Parler’s existence. If a group has to choose between human extinction and weaseling out of their principles and commitments, by all means weasel away.
The common knowledge barrier
Even given (2) and (3), (4) is pretty unlikely as well. “Red” and “blue” tribes live in different epistemic universes. What appears like patent cynical hypocrisy by one group often seems perfectly consistent to the other. Once again, not “both sides”ing this - sometimes, one group is definitely in the right. What matters here, though, is how things seem.
To illustrate, let me wade into the absolutely-safe-territory of a guy discussing abortion on the internet. To hypersimplify some complex issues, “individual liberty” is coded as a primarily conservative value whereas “protecting the vulnerable” is coded as a liberal or progressive value. Likewise, conservatives tend to oppose abortion access while liberals generally support it. From Gallup:
To the stereotypical, uncharitable Democrat, his beliefs are perfectly consistent. The opposing set of positions, however, are blatantly hypocritical because conservatives espouse “liberty” while denying women basic bodily autonomy. To the stereotypical, uncharitable Republican, her beliefs are perfectly consistent whereas professing to protect the vulnerable while denying unborn children the right to life is plain hypocrisy.
No one can agree which group, if any, is being hypocritical. I strongly suspect this type of disagreement is the norm, not the exception.
4. Back to Parler
Let’s evaluate how the well situation between Parler and Amazon/Apple/Google satisfies these four criteria:
While a group that spans Joe Manchin to AOC and beyond is anything but homogeneous, I’m comfortable saying that an aversion to corporate power and openness to government intervention is a unifying principle of the broad American left.
Parler is indisputably coded as “conservative.” Acting in the interests of Parler and its users at the cost of almost any other group or company is against the narrow interests of the liberal faction. If I were God and could simply make Parler *poof* out of existence without anyone noticing, I would (though that argument would make for a whole other post).
Different individuals will come to different conclusions, but I would personally rather maintain a skepticism of corporate power than weaken or modify this principle to accommodate this and similar situations.
This is where the situation really stands out. Parler is so clearly coded as conservative (it seems to me, at least) that many conservatives, perhaps even some MAGA diehards, would at least be a little surprised if liberals were to come to its defense.
Compare this to a similar situation involving another social media company, say Facebook (before it banned Trump). Conservatives might associate it with the liberal-coded “coastal elite” because of its headquarters in Silicon Valley. Likewise, they might imagine that the vast majority of employees, from Zuckerberg on down, are college-educated techies with the associated typical set of cosmopolitan values.
Liberals, on the other hand, might think of Facebook as the home of QAnon and Trump-adjacent fake news and disinformation. They might point out that 8 of the top 10 political Facebook pages are conservative (and we’re talking “Cold Dead Hands,” not the Wall Street Journal).
Suspend disbelief for a minute and suppose that Amazon Web Services hosted and then de-hosted Facebook. If either liberals or conservatives were to come to Facebook’s defense, no one would be able to agree who, if anyone, was courageously standing on principle in defiance of their narrow interests or practicing cynical hypocrisy.
It is rare indeed for an event to pass both the “consistency” and “common knowledge” barriers. Saying things like:
might be simultaneously legitimate and counterproductive. Like an agent playing tit-for-tat in an iterated prisoners dilemma trapped in a cycle of mutual defection, it is tempting to call out conservative bullshit (i.e. defecting as punishment for defecting) instead of seizing the opportunity to gain the moral and rhetorical high ground and advance good, important policy goals.
5. So, what should we do?
I’ve been intentionally vague so far, and that’s because I really don’t know which specific policies would best mitigate the concerning market and social power of companies like Amazon and Google without stifling innovation or excessively coercing individuals and firms.
However, one benefit of the Big Tech oligopoly is that norms alone might be sufficient to dissuade them from engaging in socially harmful behavior. When Amazon does something like de-hosting a social media platform, for example, some critical New York Times Op-Eds and #breakupamazon trending on Twitter might well slash their stock price enough to induce a hasty backtracking.
At a higher level, I am cautiously optimistic that the conspicuous sincerity I’ve described can, however marginally, build credibility and expand the liberal coalition. Consider a conservative pundit who opposed the Iraq war; wouldn’t such a person have more credibility and influence, at least among the D.C. elite, 18 years later? Of course, invading Iraq was many orders of magnitude worse than Parler’s dehosting, but the point stands. Taking the long view, principled consistency can be both moral and strategically beneficial.