© REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro
With sudden suspensions and hasty banning sprees, social media giants are censoring more than ever. High-profile spats between liberals and conservatives often grab the spotlight - but that's the tip of the censorship iceberg.

Liberal rage mobs calling for provocative conservatives to be "cancelled" or "deplatformed" are loud - and they attract plenty of attention both on social media and across centrist and liberal-leaning mainstream media.

The simultaneous banishment of right-wing agitator Alex Jones from major platforms last year was a litmus test; a way to gauge whether such bans would be palatable to the mainstream. When few raised their voices to object, the corporations had their answer: It was going to be easy to push out similar voices - and they could probably even start to widen the net.

When Vox journalist Carlos Maza insisted that conservative YouTube host Steven Crowder be banned for using homophobic slurs against him, it made headlines. In their haste to comply with this and other demands from the outrage police, platforms have been concocting new 'rules' and 'guidelines' on the fly. The result has been that even the most innocuous accounts have found themselves caught up in the maelstrom. Incredibly, history teachers even had their YouTube channels suspended for "hate speech" because they published resources for students to learn about Nazi Germany.

This might at first seem like a digital war between liberals and conservatives, with the social media companies firmly on the side of the liberals - but to really understand the latest moves toward censorship, it's necessary to put aside that notion and begin to see this as a fight between governments and anyone who challenges establishment narratives, wherever they lie on the political spectrum.

Tackling 'fake news' with censorship

When you delve into the details, there is little doubt that the most dangerous censorship efforts are all coming straight from the government itself - and social media corporations like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as everyone knows, are inextricably linked to the US government.

The last three years have seen numerous attempts by the US Congress to rid social media of information which might "sow discord" in American society, particularly the nebulous "Russian disinformation." Silicon Valley CEOs have been dragged before Congress and raked over the coals by elected officials demanding that they "do more" to tackle "fake news." Of course, they never offer a concise definition of what "fake news" actually is.

In a shockingly candid senate committee hearing in 2017, senators from both parties argued that "foreign infiltration" was leading to increased social tensions in America - and they ordered Facebook and Twitter to "prevent the fomenting of discord" in society. A former FBI agent warned that "civil wars don't start with gunshots, they start with words," telling executives that they needed to "quell information rebellions."

Contrast this with how US officials want social media to be used in other countries. It's perfectly okay, even encouraged, for Facebook to act as a vehicle to facilitate political uprisings in a country whose government Washington wants to overthrow - but social upheaval and rebellion in America? That's strictly forbidden.

Silicon Valley serving the status-quo

Consider the evidence. We've already seen Facebook alter its algorithms in such a way that traffic to leftist, anti-capitalism websites was sent plummeting. We've seen it team up with government-funded think tanks, only to suddenly suspend anti-US imperialism news outlets. We've seen it arbitrarily apply new 'rules' specifically to 'Russia-linked' pages.

Yes, we've witnessed Twitter shadowbanning (and outright banning) conservatives - but we've also seen it suddenly suspend accounts of prominent libertarian and anti-war activists.

Former White House officials and CIA directors have joined the board of the Orwellian NewsGuard "news rating" app, whose sole purpose is to drive eyes away from anti-establishment content, including WikiLeaks, whose founder is languishing in a British prison.

Sometimes efforts to control speech are even more blatant. Florida's governor recently signed a bill which equates criticism of Israel to "anti-Semitism" - another overt attempt by elected officials to punish legitimate political speech.

All of this is censorship - and none of it the result of a liberal rage mob. It's not liberals vs. conservatives, it's the government vs. anti-establishment narratives, every single time.

Private companies or government lapdogs?

Those who advocate for (or who are apathetic toward) some 'acceptable' level of censorship often defend Facebook, arguing that it is a "private company" and can do whatever it wants. This fails to acknowledge that Facebook is essentially a monopoly when it comes to information-sharing online and has shown itself to be more than comfortable working hand-in-glove with governments. CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently endorsed government censorship, saying that "...the question of what speech should be acceptable and what is harmful needs to be defined by regulation, by thoughtful governments."

Keyboard warriors insisting on the banning of this or that figure are indeed annoying and most of the time misguided, but they're not the greatest enemy in the battle against censorship.

Trump and other Republicans have made a lot of noise against censorship in recent months as high-profile conservatives have been targeted, but nobody should be tempted to see Trump or congressional Republicans as anti-censorship crusaders. It's not enough to be "anti-censorship" only in defense of your own tribe - and anyway, Trump is just a flash in the pan. When he is gone, the censorship advocates on both sides of the aisle and within US government agencies will remain.

If people begin to see the wood from the trees, Twitter bickering between guys like Maza and Crowder will start to seem like small potatoes.

When Westerners hear "government censorship" their minds jump to countries like Saudi Arabia or North Korea - but what Facebook and friends have been doing is a form of government censorship. It's just a more insidious kind that creeps up without most people noticing.

Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance writer based in Dublin. Her work​ ​has appeared in Salon, The Nation, Rethinking Russia, teleSUR, RBTH, The Calvert Journal​ ​and others. Follow her on Twitter @DanielleRyanJ