In Face of Big Tech Censorship, Free Speech Alternatives Emerge Online

Big Tech players like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and YouTube are becoming more comfortable banning conservative voices from their platforms. Big Tech is open to censoring conservative speech. However, other platforms that allow free expression and are dedicated to free speech are beginning to fill the gap.

The director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Technology Policy, Lora Ries, contends that as long as these big platforms continue to censor dissent, alternative platforms will crop up to try to serve as alternatives. (The Heritage Foundation’s news outlet, The Daily Signal.)

“The new CEO [of Twitter] has been quoted as less concerned with free speech and more about driving their users toward information that Twitter wants to provide,” Ries said as an example of Big Tech censorship. “That doesn’t bode well for free speech or true public discourse or having disagreements about difficult topics like COVID and COVID response.”

“So as long as that trend continues, then these alternatives, I think, will grow and compete with each other,” she added.

Ries joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss how Big Tech censors conservatives and how platforms such as Gettr and Rumbleare putting freedom speech at their forefront. 

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Listen to the podcast below, or read the lightly edited transcript.

Doug Blair: Lora Rye, director of The Center for Technology Policy at The Heritage Foundation and senior research fellow for homeland Security at The Heritage Foundation, is our guest today. Lora, thank-you so much for being on the show.

Lora Ries:Thank you for having us on.

Blair: With the rise of censorship from platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, we’ve seen free speech-focused alternatives, such as Gettr and Rumble, pop up to try and take their place as free speech-friendly platforms. How successful have these efforts been?

Ries: Well, it’s still relatively early, and they are kind of at their infancy, these new companies, but they seem to get quick spurts of people joining them. Gettr, for example, had 1,000,000 people join it last week. They’re now up to 4.2 million. You can compare this to Twitter’s 330 million users.

It’s an uphill battle, but nonetheless, when you have very public events of censorship, such as the Joe Rogan interview with Dr. [Robert]Malone’s COVID video has been removed from YouTube and Twitter. This drives people to these platforms. So, I suspect they’re just going to grow, but it’s going to take some more time.

Blair: I’m curious, do you happen to know if Twitter was in the same boat where they sort of grew very quickly at first, and then sort of, kind of, petered off or was that not how they went?

Ries:Twitter was organic and more gradual in its growth over time. It was a new way of communicating with 140 characters. It was new to many people. It was slow and steady as people became more comfortable with it.

So, I view that differently than these new platforms that are being created almost out of necessity, just for conservatives and others to be able to communicate with confidence that their content’s not going to be taken down or their reputation maligned, et cetera.

Blair: Do Gettr and Rumble really take their kind of claim to fame as the censorship thing, where they’re free speech platforms, or are there other issues at play that make these alternatives so popular?

Ries:They do. And I think they’re having a much smarter approach to content. No one wants to see extreme violence on their platforms. [sexually]Sex trafficking, explicit material and other things like this are all examples. When you think about the legislation and the liability protection these tech platforms have, which was given to them in Congress, the main focus is obscene. Those are the guidelines.

Now, there is also in that language given to them by Congress “otherwise objectionable,” and it’s in that very vague standard or term that companies like Twitter and YouTube are putting in whatever content they suddenly find objectionable.

And so, it’s very vague, and it’s difficult for users to know what rules they should be following. These new companies are much closer to the original intent. And they said, “It’s not that hard. If you’re going to talk about ivermectin, fine. We’re not going to take your content down. Beheadings, yes, we’re taking that down.” And so, I think they have the right approach.

I believe older platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook did their users and themselves a disservice when it came to refereeing content. After all, how do you manage the sheer volume and complexity of the content that is out there? They’re going to miss stuff. They’re going to get it wrong, and they certainly have.

Blair: You mentioned Robert Malone in the beginning, when you were speaking of people who have been censored. Former President [Donald]Trump and, more recently, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene [R-Ga.]They were banned from these social media platforms. Are they finding success on these alternative platforms now?

Ries:President Trump has resisted. Gettr would like President Trump to go. He hasn’t. Now, meanwhile, he is about to put out his … He started his own company, the Trump Media and Technology Group. The company will launch the social media platform, The Truth Social, in February. It looks a lot like a Twitter alternative.

So, I think President Trump’s kind of holding back and wants to focus on the new company that he’s starting. Other people who have been suspended, like Rep. Greene, yes, they’re going elsewhere. Right now, Gettr seems to be the hottest. Pre-January 6th [2021]Parler was the one that saw a lot of conservatives move over to Facebook and Twitter, whether it was Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, or many others.

They were then removed from the app stores, and then AWS, Amazon Web Services pulled the plug.

Blair: I’m curious to see what you have to say about that. What guarantees can you give that these new platforms are not going to be discontinued by Amazon Web Services? What’s the guarantee that that’s not going to happen again?

Ries: Well, if you’re just talking an application, something in an application store, you don’t have that guarantee because you’re dealing with either Apple or the Play Store for Google. And if they yank you, there are workarounds where you could go on your laptop and still access some applications, but it’s a lower level in the technology stack where Amazon Web Services, it’s the hosting service. And if that gets pulled, it’s lights out, and that’s exactly what Parler experienced.

So, now you’re having more companies build their own infrastructure. There’s a company called Right Forge, for example, which is, it both hosts, it provides data centers, but also applications. And so there’s more confidence there for users that they’re not going to have the rug pulled out from them and then not be able to operate at all.

There are many other aspects to electronic services that people should consider. Mailchimp, email, and financial services have been questioned. Companies like Stripe have also facilitated Trump activities and fundraising events.

This is another aspect of digital living that conservatives need attention to. They might want to move elsewhere or start their own business. It becomes very Balkanized. However, people need to live, raise money, and be able bank, etc. So, this is the world we’re living in right now.

Blair: We discussed the possibility of moving from a less-known site like Gettr to one that attracts a lot of people. You mentioned that 1,000,000 people joined at one time. One of the reasons that helped to precipitate that was the move of Joe Rogan from Twitter into Gettr. He has both, but he’s now on Gettr.

Is it possible that this is how these sites will start to gain traction, and that large people will do so, similar to high-profile people moving between one site and the next?

Ries:This seems to be the current trend. Rumble is another example. So, Sen. Rand Paul [R-Ky.]YouTube has been closed down and Rumble has been created to post video content. And you’ve got other members going over there, whether it’s former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, an actor like Russell Brand. These companies are eager to announce big names to their platforms in order to increase user sign ups.

Blair: Now, we’ve actually kind of discussed how these things kind of ebb and flow. These places seem like flashes in a pan. Remember Gab, Parler? These are all sites that came and went. I wonder if we can see these efforts to decouple the bigger platforms as sustainable. Or do we see it as a rotating cycle of sorts?

Ries: I think it’s too early to tell, but it does not seem like Twitter is going to let up in terms of removing content and removing accounts entirely. According to some, the new CEO is less concerned about free speech and more focused on driving users towards the information that Twitter wants. That doesn’t bode well for free speech or true public discourse or having disagreements about difficult topics like COVID and COVID response.

As long as this trend continues, these alternatives will grow and compete against each other, and also spread to some of the other areas I mentioned, such as email services and payments services.

Blair: You mentioned that Twitter and these other social media titans don’t really seem like they’re going to respond by clamping down on censorship. They’re going to keep doing it. Are they making any official statements about these platforms. Are they worried?

Ries: They don’t seem to be concerned. I think given the advertising money that these older, larger platforms raise, as well as their user base and sheer volume and their global reach, they don’t seem too concerned with these newer platforms.

However, convenience is a major issue. I mean, I myself didn’t use to use Twitter until a couple years ago. And I find one social platform, it’s time-consuming to read up, keep up on what’s being posted and to post yourself.

I don’t have the time to go to multiple sites and read up and post, and I’m sure I’m not alone on that. Cross is intriguing to me. Can you cross-post on Gettr or Twitter? What does this mean for agreements between these companies, or in terms of inconsistent policies and guidelines? It’s going to be interesting to watch.

Blair: That is an interesting point. It would need to be an agreement between Twitter & Gettr in order to cross-post. Many people will accuse these sites, including Rumble and Gettr, Parler and Gab, as conservative echo chambers and not being able to reach larger Americans in general.

How do we make sure that these are actual competitive alternatives or how do the sites themselves make sure that they’re actual competitive alternatives and not just perceived as conservative echo chambers?

Ries: These newer platforms will be more popular if they adhere to the guidelines of content moderation that does not allow for explicit sexual postings or excessive violence. Not just conservatives. I mean, there were many left-leaning people and apolitical people throughout the COVID pandemic. They really questioned why there was not honest discussion about medicines and treatments for COVID, and why is there misinformation for a brand-new disease that people are still learning about.

And so, I think it’s opened a lot of eyes—not just conservatives’—about what’s happening and in terms of free speech, public speech. It will also benefit these newer platforms, I believe.

Blair: I’m going to jump into the free speech idea. We love liberty and want free speech to be our priority. I’ve talked with colleagues, friends who are on some of these platforms who view the angle of the only thing we will take down is something that is explicitly illegal. Perhaps a video of a beheading that you mentioned on Rumble.

How can these sites balance the safety concerns and free speech? Because I’ve heard that some of these comments that some of these people receive are quite vulgar and vile, but where’s the balance?

Ries: So, free speech historically in the U.S., it’s been difficult. Many cases have reached the Supreme Court. The often cited rule is “You can’t yell fire in a movie theater.” So if you are actively inciting violence, then that’s not OK. But otherwise there has to be room for offensive language, and these days, everybody’s offended. The benefit of the doubt should be given to more speech, and not less.

Blair: Could that be a concern? One of the reasons I know a lot of people sometimes will criticize Twitter on the left, well, they’ll say, “This was vulgar. This was disgusting. It was threatening to me. Why didn’t you take it down?” And then Twitter tends to respond in that way. Do we see that maybe that would be a problem for some of these so smaller sites like Gettr and Rumble if they don’t do that?

Ries:I mean, it could be. I believe that the more they stick to the simpler, clearer guidelines, the greater their success. It takes a whole army of people at companies such as Twitter to referee some of this stuff. And it’s not good for business. It’s not good for Americans, the users, or free speech, or our body politic.

Blair: What are some of your thoughts on the lessons that larger companies can learn by looking at companies like Gettr and Rumble.

Ries:They should go back to their original purpose. [Section]230 liability protection They should allow more freedom of speech, not less. They should not be getting in this business of “disinformation” or “misinformation,” because who defines that? It’s very vague. It seems to be changing weekly. And it seems to be bleeding into political speech—what members of Congress, some would like to label as extremism.

It’s just a very slippery, very dangerous slope. They seem to be on that path. It would be wise for them stop and reassess their position before moving in the opposite direction. It’s not going to be good for business for them. They’re giving up about half of the American population if they view speech from the right or even the center-right as “extremist” or labeling topics as “misinformation.”

Blair: How can these discussions about Big Tech alternatives fit in with conservative views on Section 230?

Ries: More competition is better: Fair market, free market. As conservatives, this is what we support. Now, a lot of these Big Tech companies would argue, “Oh, we have lots competition.” It’s funny. We receive a weekly email from Google, and it’s literally called “Weekly Competition Facts,” where they try to show other companies and how they provide competition to Google.

I’d like to point out that I rarely, if ever, see any information regarding search engines. So, if you have to say, “We have a competition every week,” it begs the question, “Do you really?” But for these Big Tech companies, it’s more about their behavior. What are they doing? Is it preference in search engine results? Moderating content? Fact-checking?

And so, that’s where there’s a real opportunity for much more not just competitive platforms to emerge and to grow, but companies that act like free market companies and are not getting in the business of deciding what speech is allowed and what isn’t.

Blair: So, to begin to wrap-up, I’d like to ask kind of two paired questions. First, should conservatives feel at ease moving to these platforms.

Ries: Generally, yes. Now, [there’s]I think both these companies must pay attention to one thing, but users and potential users should also. And that is, who’s financing these companies? Where are the servers located? And this is something Parler ran into after January 6th, where it tried to re-stand up the company in terms of who’s doing cybersecurity? Where are the servers stored? Are they located in the United States? Are there Russian ties Are there Chinese ties?

Because then you’re getting into security issues, data privacy concerns. Companies, founders, and users need to do their homework.

Blair: The second part of the question is: Should conservatives then abandon these other platforms such as YouTube and Twitter?

Ries: Well, I mean, in some cases they don’t have a choice. They’re kicked off permanently. There is certainly an argument to be made that if conservatives all leave Twitter, then we’re not taking good arguments and logic and thoughtful policy recommendations and conversations to the left and trying to convince people on the left that they are indeed good policy decisions.

And so if you just abandon Twitter to the left, that’s not a good thing either. So, that’s where maybe this cross-posting is a good idea, where you can have a little bit more personal security in terms of confidence that you’re not going to be kicked off on some of these new, smaller alternatives, but you’re also still making good arguments and giving persuasive ideas on the platforms like Twitter and YouTube and Facebook.

Blair: This was Lora Ries from The Heritage Foundation, who is director of The Center for Technology Policy. She is also senior research fellow for homeland safety here at The Heritage Foundation. Lora, thank-you so much for taking the time to speak.

Ries:Thank you.

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