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

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


Big Tech actors like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube feel increasingly comfortable banning conservative voices from their platforms. But as Big Tech is willing to censor conservatives for their speech, other platforms devoted to free expression are starting 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 Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)

“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 Rumble are putting free speech at the forefront. 

We also cover these stories: 

  • The Supreme Court blocks the Biden administration from enforcing its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for businesses with 100 or more employees.
  • Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., confirms she will not back efforts to alter the filibuster, seemingly ending attempts by Senate Democrats to change the procedure.
  • The House of Representatives passes a controversial elections-related bill that would greatly expand the federal government’s control of state and local election laws.

Listen the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Doug Blair: Our guest today is Lora Ries, director of the Center for Technology Policy and senior research fellow for homeland security at The Heritage Foundation. Lora, thank you so much for joining the show.

Lora Ries: Thanks for having me 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 those efforts been so far?

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. For example, just last week, Gettr had 1 million people join. They’re now up to 4.2 million. Now, you compare that to Twitter, which has 330 million.

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 regarding COVID taken down from both YouTube and Twitter, it drives people to these other 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: So, I think Twitter was more organic and a little more a gradual increase over the years. It was a brand new type of communicating, 140 characters. It was foreign to people. And so it was much more steady, slow growth as people got 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 take it to heart. And I think they’re having a much smarter approach to content. Nobody wants extreme violence posted on their platforms or [sexually] explicit material, sex trafficking, things like that. And that is, if you talk about the legislation and the liability protection that these tech platforms have, that was given to them by Congress, the focus is obscene, lewd, filthy, excessively violent harassing. Those are the standards.

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. So, these new companies have gone much more back 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.

And I think the older platforms like Twitter and YouTube and Facebook did themselves and certainly their users a disservice when they decided to basically referee content, because how do you manage that with just the sheer volume of content that is up? They’re going to miss stuff. They’re going to get it wrong, and they certainly have.

Blair: Speaking of people who have been censored, you mentioned Robert Malone at the beginning. Former President [Donald] Trump and, recently after that, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene [R-Ga.] were banned from these mainstream social media platforms. Have they found success on these alternative platforms?

Ries: Well, President Trump has held back. Gettr would like for President Trump to join there. He has not. Now, meanwhile, he is about to put out his … He started his own company, the Trump Media and Technology Group. The Truth Social is the social media platform that that company is going to launch in February. It seems to be 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. Gettr seems to be the hot one right now. Pre-January 6th [2021], it was Parler that was experiencing a lot of conservatives moving over off of Twitter and Facebook, whether it was Sean Hannity or Mark Levin and many others.

And then, of course, after January 6th, they were kicked off the app stores and then AWS, Amazon Web Services, pulled the plug on them.

Blair: I am curious to follow up on that. What is the guarantee that these new platforms will not be axed by Amazon Web Services or something? 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 other parts of electronic services, though, that people have to think about, too. Email, Mailchimp has been questionable, but also financial services and payment services. Companies like Stripe also kicked off Trump activities and fundraising events, Wells Fargo, Chase.

So, that is another aspect of our digital lives that conservatives need to keep an eye on and perhaps go elsewhere or build their own, unfortunately. It becomes very Balkanized, but people needed to live and raise money and be able to bank, etc. So, this is the world we’re living in right now.

Blair: We discussed the move from sort of a lower-profile site like Gettr to a large explosion of people. You mentioned 1 million people joined at a time. And one of the things that kind of precipitated that was when podcaster Joe Rogan moved from Twitter to Gettr. Obviously, he has both, but he is now on Gettr as well.

Is that how these sites will begin to pick up traction, is through large people, kind of like high-profile people moving from one site to the other site?

Ries: That seems to be the trend right now. Another one example is Rumble. So, Sen. Rand Paul [R-Ky.] left YouTube and moved over to Rumble 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. And so now these companies seem eager to announce new, big names coming to their platforms to then increase users signing up.

Blair: Now, we’ve actually kind of discussed how these things kind of ebb and flow. I almost sometimes fear that these places are just kind of flashes in the pan, right? Remember Parler, Gab, these are all sites that kind of came and went. I guess, do we see these efforts to decouple from the bigger platforms as being something sustainable? Or do we see this as kind of a rotating cycle?

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. The new CEO has been quoted as less concerned with free speech and more about driving their users toward information that Twitter wants to provide. 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 and also spread into some of these other areas I talked about, perhaps like email services and payment services and the like.

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. Have they officially made any statements about these platforms? Do they seem concerned?

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.

One issue I would note, though, is just convenience. 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. And so the idea of cross is interesting to me. So, can you cross-post on, say, Gettr and Twitter. What does that mean in terms of agreements between those companies or inconsistent policies and guidelines? It’s going to be interesting to watch.

Blair: Now, that is an interesting point that there would have to be some sort of agreement between Twitter and Gettr to do a cross-posting thing. A lot of people will start to accuse these sites, like Rumble and Gettr, even Parler and Gab, of being conservative echo chambers, and that not being a way to sort of reach out to larger Americans as a whole.

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: Well, I think as long as they stay in that very easy, clean content moderation set of guidelines of not excessively violent or explicit sexual postings, these newer platforms are going to get much more of a draw. And not just by conservatives. I mean, there were plenty of apolitical people, left-leaning people throughout this COVID pandemic who really question why is honest discussion around medicines and treatments and alternative options to COVID as a response, why is that misinformation for a brand new disease that people are just learning as we go?

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. And I think these newer platforms will benefit from it.

Blair: Now, I want to dive into that free speech idea, because obviously, as lovers of liberty, we want free speech to be the 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. Something like a beheading video that you mentioned on, maybe, Rumble.

How do these sites balance the free speech needs and the concerns of safety? 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. There have been many cases in the courts that have gone to 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. So, the benefit of the doubt needs to go towards more speech, not less.

Blair: Does that prove to be maybe 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 vile. 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 think the harder they try to stick to that easier, cleaner set of guidelines, the more successful that they will be. Literally, I think it takes an army at companies like Twitter to play referee on 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 the lessons you think that the larger companies can be taking from some of these companies like Gettr and Rumble?

Ries: Well, that they should return to the original intent of what was behind [Section] 230 liability protection. They should be allowing more free 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 change 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. And unfortunately, they seem to be going down that path. It would be good for them to stop and reassess and move in the other 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 do these conversations about Big Tech alternatives fit into conservative views on things like Section 230?

Ries: More competition is better: Free market, fair market. As conservatives, we are all for that. 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 would note on here, I rarely or hardly ever see anything regarding, say, 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, whether it is preference in terms of search engine results or moderating content or 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 off, should conservatives feel comfortable moving to these platforms?

Ries: Generally, yes. Now, [there’s] one issue I think both these companies need to pay attention to, but so do users and prospective users. And that is, who’s financing these companies? Where are the servers? 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 hosted? Are they domestic? Are there Russian ties? Are there Chinese ties?

Because then you’re getting into security issues, data privacy concerns. So, the companies and the founders and the users, as best users can, should do some due diligence.

Blair: And then the second part of the question is, should conservatives then leave these other platforms like 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: That was Lora Ries, director of the Center for Technology Policy and senior research fellow for homeland security here at The Heritage Foundation. Lora, thank you so much for your time.

Ries: Thank you.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.