Fifty years ago Spiro Agnew gave us a powerful warning. In Agnew’s famous Iowa speech known as “The Responsibilities of Television,” the vice president wanted Americans to be aware of the danger of power being concentrated “in the hands of a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government.”
At the time, Agnew was referring to broadcast news. Back then, Americans only had three national news programs to choose from and they all offered the same spin. That power was especially obvious after the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive. On the ground, the battle was a massive defeat for the communists and a tremendous success story for our troops. But in America’s living rooms, The Tet Offensive represented a failure --or at least was portrayed as one, as that was the picture painted for Americans by Walter Cronkite and his colleagues.
Regardless of one’s views on the Vietnam War – or on Agnew’s ethical challenges – we can all agree that allowing a small, unelected cabal to shape our worldview is dangerous. Americans deserve a pluralistic media landscape. A half century after Agnew’s speech we might consider ourselves lucky for having countless media outlets with a wide variety of viewpoints. Progressives can still enjoy the major networks, as well as CNN, MSNBC, and print journalism. Conservatives can enjoy Fox News, talk radio, and news sites like The Daily Caller.
But unfortunately, these outlets have dramatically less influence than Cronkite and are often just preaching to the choir. Left-wing news outlets are chasing the “Trump Bump” by attempting to appeal to a sizable and rabid audience of folks who want to read anti-Trump stories, whether they’re accurate or not. Right-wing news outlets did much of the same under Obama.
Who then, should we be wary of today? Who is 2019’s “tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government?” The social media titans of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, of course.
As psychologist Robert Epstein, Northwestern University, and Project Veritas have proven, these giants have an unimaginable ability to change our perception of the world.
They are the new book burners, only we’re not given the opportunity to see which written texts they’ve set on fire. If Google redefines a word to suit their progressive agenda, or if Facebook takes your money for advertisements but ensures the ads aren’t actually visible, or if Twitter shadow bans you, you might not even know it happened.
Big Tech has an unimaginable ability to sway our elections, and these companies are each dominated by individuals who are entirely hostile to free speech, free markets, and individual liberty. Most of America is only now truly beginning to understand its scope, but understanding we have a problem is the first step to creating a broad, national demand for a solution.
In addition to the danger posed by these titans is the danger posed by those who know how to most effectively ride the social media wave. Sites like Buzzfeed and NowThis built up their followings by sharing innocuous lifestyle lists and puppy videos. But once their audience had reached the tens of millions, they swiftly and strategically pivoted and began injecting radical left-wing propaganda into our newsfeeds. This was diabolically brilliant.
Libertarians and conservatives have largely been split into two camps: those who bemoan the power of social media titans and those who use social media platforms to create content that appeals to their echo chamber of donors. They would do wise to learn from their big government counterparts and create content that actually changes minds, as opposed to strictly producing content that raises money. Unfortunately, the two goals often appear to be mutually exclusive.
As Agnew warned fifty years ago this month, “The American people would rightly not tolerate this concentration of power in government.” Why then should we tolerate such a concentration of power in Silicon Valley?