I was on my iPhone the other day when I heard the first furtive whispers about Big Tech’s silencing of Senator Josh Hawley. Since Jan. 6, when the Missouri Republican was photographed fist-pumping his support for some of the very fine people who would later storm the United States Capitol, Hawley has been all but banished from the media. Other than his frequent appearances on some of the most popular cable news shows in the country, his biting Twitter account, the Instagram account where he posts family snapshots and clips from cable hits, and his YouTube page collecting his nearly every utterance on the Senate floor, Hawley has suffered the worst fate known to a modern American politician: cancellation.
But as Nelson Mandela wrote while imprisoned on Robben Island, “Difficulties break some men but make others.” Hawley, in that spirit, has only been stiffened by his battle with what he calls “the titans of woke capital.”
When Simon & Schuster dropped plans to publish Hawley’s book, “The Tyranny of Big Tech,” in the wake of the Capitol riot, the senator was undeterred. He bravely weathered nearly two weeks of uncertainty before another large publisher, Regnery, picked it up.
And so what if, in marketing his uncanceled book, Hawley has recently been posting links on Twitter and Facebook to Amazon.com, where his book is currently on the best-seller list? A cynic may see hypocrisy in Hawley’s relying on Big Tech to sell a book about the supposed censorious evils of Big Tech, but perhaps it is a kind of creative culture-jamming — no less ingenious, really, than the way associates of the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn smuggled to the West microfilmed manuscripts of “The Gulag Archipelago” and other works in film canisters, book bindings and phonograph lids, right under the authorities’ noses.
I am dunking on Josh Hawley because it is irresistible and very easy to do so, but also to make an important, often overlooked point: When we talk about ideas like free speech, censorship, tyranny, “woke mobs” and especially “cancellation” in the American digital discourse, we are rarely talking about eliminating a speaker’s opportunity to be heard.
Although he has suffered widespread opprobrium for his actions on Jan. 6, Hawley has hardly been silenced. Neither, of course, has former President Donald Trump, who was kicked off Twitter and Facebook for multiple posts that stoked the Jan. 6 riot — but who also, on Tuesday, released to great fanfare a new website that describes itself as a “beacon of freedom” in a “time of silence and lies.”
Hawley and Trump’s very noisy cancellations point to a central complication in America’s endless fights about how and whether to police speech online. Outside of truly repressive regimes, no one, in the digital age, is ever really “silenced.” What we are fighting about when we fight about cancellation is not an erasure, exactly, but instead a quieting — not who gets to speak, but whose speech gets to be amplified by recommendation algorithms, shared and echoed across the viral social-media-cable-news axis until it becomes loud enough to blanket the entire media landscape. As the misinformation scholar Renée DiResta has put it, it is the difference between “freedom of speech” and “freedom of reach.”
In America we have well-established traditions regarding censorship — it’s bad. But amplification presents another question entirely, one for which no one seems to have any ready answers, not least technology companies and politicians. The difficulty does not bode well. I worry that we’re stuck in a cultural cul-de-sac, an unending circular argument about cancellation that works to all sides’ advantage. Social networks like Facebook keep getting bigger and more profitable; politicians get to constantly work the media refs, playing silenced victims punished for their brave truth-telling; and all the while the citizenry burrows ever deeper into an overwhelming information hellscape where little can be trusted.
Now even the supposed experts are coming up short on solutions. On Wednesday, Facebook’s Oversight Board — a panel of journalists, activists, free-speech scholars and others selected by the company to pass judgment about what flies and what doesn’t on the network — punted on its biggest decision to date, whether to reinstate Trump’s account. The board declined to undo Facebook’s Trump ban, but it also gave Facebook six months to issue clearer rules and make a final decision about Trump’s account status.
At first I was surprised by the non-decision decision, but soon it began to make sense. Lots of people understand the danger to our society of a media controlled by a handful of too-powerful billionaires. It is staggering, for instance, to consider how differently the last five years might have gone if Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey of Twitter had made slightly different programming decisions in the run-up to the 2016 election. Had Dorsey banned Trump’s tweets in 2015, might he have altered the course of history?
But the billionaires are wary of exercising such power, lest they further alarm a public already skittish about their reach. Politicians, meanwhile, can yell a lot but can’t do much; as private corporations with their own rights to free speech — guaranteed by a string of conservative Supreme Court decisions, among them Citizens United — social networks are free to run their sites however they please, and it’s hard to see any law that restricts these rights surviving constitutional review.
And if corporations and politicians aren’t going to solve the problem, what incentive is there for outside experts to issue firm edicts? It’s unsatisfactory, but I can see how punting was the wisest course for members of the Oversight Board.
Hawley is a graduate of Yale Law School, a former clerk to the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and a former state attorney general. I had picked up his book to see if, amid the general hopelessness in these debates about online speech, he might have come up with novel ideas about how to address our plight.
Alas, he hasn’t. He spends a lot of time illustrating the power of tech companies, but his solutions are platitudinal — he writes that we should be “revitalizing antitrust legislation, ending the corporate giveaways, protecting our fundamental constitutional right to free speech, and revising our overall economic and social policy to put working people first.”
Well, OK, but how? Antitrust law has been gutted by many decades of jurisprudence by the very sort of conservative judges Hawley supports. “Corporate giveaways” — does Hawley mean the tax cuts that are his party’s answer to seemingly every economic problem? And how would any edict about what tech companies must do to police speech square with the “fundamental constitutional right to free speech” Hawley praises?
I would have liked to ask the senator these questions. Given his banishment from the media, I thought he’d be up for chatting. But when I reached out to a representative, I was told that wouldn’t be possible. The canceled senator’s media calendar was booked solid.