I was in the kitchen preparing the family’s dinner when the inauguration of Joe Biden was on TV, so I caught only mysterious fragments of his speech, over the noise of the blender and stuff. ‘I want an hour — an hour — with my own teen wolf,’ Joe seemed to say at one point. And then: ‘America, America, I give to you my vest.’ I raced through to the living room when someone announced that Garth Crooks was going to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ — good choice, Joe, I thought. Garth seems to have lost a little weight and indeed colour, but he did a decent job.
It all went well enough, given the circumstances, and at no point did Joe ask why all those people were there and was it his birthday or something. A very self-regarding young woman appeared and read an awful poem, so I went back into the kitchen. Truth be told, I can’t bear the chest-beating pomposity of the Americans on occasions like this, and the kitsch and the confected emotion and the dire music. I think I preferred the nonagenarians of the old USSR standing implacably as loads of nukes trundled by. Certainly the Russians have the better national anthem.
Still, the BBC presenters seemed to like it, sobbing with happiness at every juncture. I hope the new director-general, Tim Davie, was watching the coverage and noted the somewhat different tone to that which accompanied the inauguration of Donald Trump four years previously. It was a close call between Auntie and CNN as to who could provide the most dementedly partisan coverage — the difference being that we don’t have Fox to offer a bit of balance.
I mentioned shortly after Trump’s defeat that what we know as the ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon had made its way into the polling station, noting that the relentless odium poured upon the orange-faced loon was now showing up in the way people actually voted, rather than simply in the opinion polls. The liberal establishment has found a way to win, then — by bullying, abusing and silencing those who dared to disagree with it. Big tech was the main culprit. Trump himself was barred from Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and YouTube, while Facebook and Twitter removed posts from Trump supporters alleging — as ever — that they constituted that very useful thing for liberals, ‘fake news’. Meanwhile the independent social media site Parler was closed down, thanks to both Amazon and Apple. All this stuff worried even Angela Merkel, no great admirer of the former president, and provoked the European Commissioner Thierry Breton to comment: ‘The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on Potus’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances is perplexing.’
This fake news, of course, is very often simply news that they do not wish you to know. In their black-and-white division of the world, the liberals state facts, while their opponents purvey lies — and the latter can be dealt with by closing down debate and discussion and banning the purveyors from access to social media.
It is happening right now in the debate, or lack of a debate, about lockdown during this awful pandemic. You can be banned or suspended from Facebook simply for citing statistics which suggest that our current approach may not be the right one, or for doubting the advisability of having a vaccine. I am no anti-vaxxer and I have been largely in favour of the measures taken by our government to prevent the unnecessary deaths of the elderly, even if I have grave doubts about the tier system. But the insistence of Sage — with the strange connivance of the BBC — that those who disagree with current strategy should not be afforded equal airtime, or given equal credence, is part of the same process we saw at work during the American election, and it was remarkably successful. Control who gets to speak and, on the rare occasions a dissident is allowed to say something, the manner in which they are treated when expressing their views, and you control the entire political debate.
Trump may have been an extreme and not especially pleasant example of a populist politician battling the bien-pensant establishment, but do not for one moment believe that he is a singularity and that the rest of the time the big tech giants will behave with equality and equanimity to those who dis-agree with their ludicrous world view. The US election was, I suspect, a taster of things to come. I have the suspicion, too, that if the Brexit debate were happening now, with the referendum a few months away, the Leave lobby would be subject to a very similar campaign of suppression and intimidation from the social media giants.
You might have thought that Biden and the Democrats would be singularly grateful to the likes of Facebook for its enormous help in ensuring he was elected. Not a bit of it. For Biden and his team, social media is nowhere near censorious enough of opposition voices and they cannot abide, especially, Mark Zuckerberg, the boss of Facebook. Why should this enormously influential tech giant publish stuff which we believe to be false and not take the consequences?
The strong likelihood is that the Biden administration will move quickly to place stronger restrictions on what the social media sites can publish. The consequence in the short term will be more self-regulation from the companies and an ever-expanding definition of that most overused of terms, ‘hate speech’, which is very often simply someone saying something which someone else does not want to hear. Meanwhile, Facebook’s Nick Clegg will be trawling, beady-eyed, through the posts on the lookout for stuff he can describe as ‘fake news’.
The real answer to fake news is to rebut with facts, of course — not to ban things from being said. There will still be some who cleave to the untruths even when they have been comprehensively rebutted. But that is not an issue for Facebook.