Streetwise Professor

November 27, 2018

The Overlords of the Overton Window

Filed under: Economics,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:28 pm

Facebook, YouTube, and in particular Twitter have been bingeing on banning of late.  The targets of these proscriptions have been anything but random: those who do not perform proskynesis before the current gods of the left.  This means that conservatives and libertarians are disproportionately affected, but even some who do not fall into those political categories are at risk.

The environment has become so hostile that at least one prominent figure, Instapundit (Glenn Reynolds, a law professor, of all things), has said “you can’t fire me, I quit!” and left Twitter.  Others less prominent have made similar decisions, and others have self-censored.

In essence, the operators of social media platforms present a Hobson’s Choice: You can censor yourself, or they will censor you.  The end result is the same: systemic biases against expression of certain political, religious, and socio-cultural opinions on the most widely used social media platforms. Twitter, Facebook, and Google are the Overlords of the Overton Window, and largely dictate the range of acceptable public discourse.

The Overton Window has always existed, but what is acceptable to express has heretofore been the result of a more decentralized, emergent process.  There was give-and-take.  There were actually multiple windows, and entry and exit were easier.  There was no centralized authority who could dictate what was acceptable: what was acceptable emerged.

What is disturbing, and positively Orwellian, about the Window today is the aggressive role of an extremely ideological, self-appointed set of censors who face little competition and who largely can control access to the means by which opinion is now expressed.  The centripetal force of virtual social networks give exceptional power to those who control access to those networks. By conditioning access on adherence to their views, the psychopaths who control these networks (and tell me honestly that you don’t believe that Zuckerberg and Dorsey are psychopaths) can coerce acceptance of their beliefs.  The technology of networks tends towards monopoly, and those who control these monopolies exercise disproportionate control over the expression of opinion, belief, and thought.

That is, traditionally the Overton Window was more consensual.  It is now increasingly the dictat of a narrow and insular set of individuals who by the whims of competition in network markets have achieved considerable power.

One of the most explicit examples of how this operates relates to the issue of transgenders–an issue you that probably was so obscure to you that it never penetrated your consciousness until recently.  Twitter has recently banned people–including someone who would best be described as a hard-core feminist–for challenging this newly decreed orthodoxy.  Twitter has just announced a policy of banning people who “misgender” (e.g., call individuals with testicles “he” though they identify as women) or “deadname” (e.g., use the name Robert to refer to someone born with testicles and named Robert by his parents, but who now identifies as Roberta).

This is revealing on several dimensions.  First, it reveals that social media has an Animal Farm-like hierarchy.  Female feminists are pretty high up on the hierarchy, but somewhere below transgenders.  So if a female feminist transgresses the transgender norm, she becomes a non-person.  Better stick to attacking those lower in the hierarchy, like straight white males!

Second, a marginal (and arguably minuscule, in terms of numbers) group is sanctified, and obeisance to that group becomes a litmus test for acceptance, and freedom from attack/banning.  Question the sanctified, and you are a non-person, and anathematized.

The marginal and extremely unconventional nature of the group is extremely important to the process.  Who cares if you affirm that ice cream is great?  But affirming that the extremely marginal and unusual are great does not come naturally, and indeed, it is costly to those of a more traditional bent.  It is also costly because it takes some effort to figure out what you are supposed to affirm, especially since it is outside your realm of experience.

But the cost is the point!  You have to pay the cost in order to avoid ostracism.  To demonstrate your fealty.  Bending the knee is deeply symbolic precisely because people naturally rebel against it.  Because it is psychically costly.  Those with strength of will are ostracized, and those made of softer stuff validate the beliefs of the overlords by worshipping their gods.

This is the way that cults operate.  Acquiescing to bizarre beliefs and engaging in bizarre rituals demonstrates fealty to the cult.

And don’t think that this will end when all users of Twitter and Facebook get their minds right and adopt Mark’s and Jack’s dictated opinions regarding transgenders (which are likely purely instrumental).  At such point, transgenders become totally useless.  Totally. New tests of loyalty and conformity will become necessary.  A new group will be sanctified.  I shudder to think what it will be, but I guarantee it will happen.  And at that time transgenders will become as irrelevant as past causes célèbres, e.g., gays.  (Don’t hear much about them anymore, do you? Old news.  Hence not useful.)

One often-heard viewpoint expressed by usually conservative and libertarian people is that this is, if not OK, something we have to accept because it is not the government that is imposing restrictions on freedom of expression.  These are private individuals in control of private entities.

This is seductive logic, but it is extremely defective because it ignores objective realities.

The concern about government restriction on freedom of speech is that it has a monopoly of force that it can use to overawe and oppress.  Further, government restrictions on speech reduce accountability of government, and therefore undermine checks on its power.

We should have similar grave concerns about private individuals and private enterprises that utilize their right to control access to near-monopoly platforms to overawe and oppress.  Further, these are intensely political entities whose controlling personalities desire to exercise political power, preferably with limited or no accountability.

The line between public and private that is often drawn here is completely imaginary.  No, these are not government entities.  But they are entities that desire to exercise great influence over the government, through various means. and to exercise control over individuals in ways governments have only fantasized about.  (The symbiosis between Google and the government of the PRC is not an accident, comrades.)

Checking their power is therefore completely consistent with a belief in the primacy of individual liberty.  Indeed, given the steady erosion in limits on government, shackling those who exert disproportionate influence on government and the political process is all the more vital to those who champion individual freedom.  (This is exactly why Facebook and Twitter and Google should be the LAST entities you want determining what is, and what is not, acceptable political speech, and what is fake news, and why the insistence by politicians that they do so is the bootleggers-and-baptists problem from hell.)

Those who care about individual liberty must strive to reduce the power to coerce, regardless of whether that coercive power is wielded by a government, or an individual, or a non-government entity.  Coercion is the thing.  Not the identity of the coercer.

Further, as I’ve noted several times before, the classical liberal/limited government tradition has recognized the dangers of private monopoly, and has constrained it through the imposition of open access and non-discrimination requirements.  If such requirements are justified for innkeepers and stagecoaches and railroads, they are more than justified for social media platforms, especially given the public goods nature (in the strict economics sense of the term) of their output–something that cannot be said of innkeepers and stagecoaches and railroads.

So, echoing Lenin, what is to be done?  One thing is clear: direct approaches are fruitless.  If Glenn Reynolds censors himself, that just saves Jack Dorsey the trouble.  The end result is the same: Jack wins.

A la Liddell-Hart, Fuller, or Sun-Tzu, an indirect approach is necessary. I’m not sure what that approach should be, but these military thinkers (no, that’s not always an oxymoron) have identified key aspects of it.  Identify the enemy’s center of gravity (and we should indeed view these people and companies as our entities).  Then don’t attack their strong points, but find their blind spots, their vulnerabilities, and strike at those.  Find the back door to the center of gravity.

And in thinking through the problem, don’t get hung up on false distinctions between public and private.  This is only to play into the hands of those who want to dominate you.

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  1. A better technical solution is to decouple content filtering (which is a necessity when you consider what Gab looks like unfiltered) hosting, and search. One common trick is to post some common Holocaust statistic on Gab, let the antisemite trolls self-identify with responses, and then go down the list and block them. A better solution is to have third party filter services do that for the less technically inclined, and let filtration services compete for users’ trust. A case can be made that making content filtering (if done at all) transparent and accessible to third parties is a necessary condition for common-carrier status. Opaque filtering of the sort Twitter does is grounds for punitive class-action torts.

    There is nothing natural about the winner-take-all dynamic of social media. Like Hollywood winner-take-all, it is a product of the expansive scope of copyright, and copyright is, at its core, and industry regulation. A free-market solution should start first with *reducing* the scope of regulation, and paring back copyright. Let competitors scrape content freely and produce alternate user client software, and tell FB, Twitter, and the Goog go pound sand with their claims of copyright over user-supplied content.

    Comment by M. Rad. — November 27, 2018 @ 10:08 pm

  2. Oh, and one more thing, we have an example of relatively benign regulation with the telephone network. Telephone companies are immune from lawsuits related to the content of their calls (common-carrier status) but are required by law to connect all calls without any filtration. It wouldn’t be terribly hard these days for a phone company to opaquely block calls from Republican fundraisers and pro-lifers, for example, so be glad Dorsey isn’t in that business. This must-connect rule has stymied AT&T from implementing phonespam filtering, but third-party solutions have emerged that key off the caller-ID field (NoMoRobo, for example), and government prosecution is limited to cases where caller ID is spoofed on a mass scale.

    Comment by M. Rad. — November 27, 2018 @ 10:52 pm

  3. I have no clear feeling for what might get me in the soup. I imagine that I’d be safe enough arguing that the Christian Nativity stories are balderdash – Greek intrusions into a tale about a Jewish milieu. I suppose I might get off with arguing that the Jewish foundation myth, Exodus, is obviously poppycock. But would I get off with pointing at the evidence that the Koran’s Holy City wasn’t Mecca?

    Or are all those so remote from the current concerns of snowflakes that I’d be safe?

    Would I be allowed to argue that Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming is plain rubbish? It would be ironic if I were censored on the one topic on which I have some relevant expertise.

    Comment by dearieme — November 28, 2018 @ 9:13 am

  4. @M. Rad—What I proposed last year was exactly the non-discrimination requirement that you mention. That’s the key element of the common carrier regulation.

    Insofar as winner-take-all dynamic. I’m skeptical that IP/copyright has a big influence insofar as Twitter and Facebook are concerned. To me, it’s analogous to a futures exchange: people who want to trade congregate where the other potential traders are. On social networks, what is traded is various forms of social exchange.

    If you look at what was required to overcome the network effect in the stock market–essentially, socializing order flow, rather than treating it as owned by the exchange receiving it–it’s hard to see how that could work on Twitter or Facebook. Order flow is a much more homogeneous thing than the content/interaction flow on social networks.

    One parallel that I’ve been thinking about is ownership of data/information. A big controversy in financial markets now is exchange ownership of, and profiting from, price/quote data. There are some similarities between this and Facebook or Twitter profiting from the information you provide through the use of the platform.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 28, 2018 @ 10:11 am

  5. @dearieme–You put your finger on a crucial mechanism of social control on these networks. FUD–fear, uncertainty, doubt. People who don’t know what the rules are, and where the lines are drawn, naturally censor themselves.

    The apparent arbitrariness of some of the banning actually likely has a purpose: it creates uncertainty which leads the risk averse to self-censor, which in turn reduces the amount of effort Twitter has to exert to control expression.

    Gary Becker, a great economist and former professor of mine, used to say that the optimal punishment for something like a parking violation was a very small probability of a very large penalty (death). This deters the risk averse, and reduces the resources necessary to deter unwanted behavior. I think that there is something of this in the way the social media platforms operate.

    Comment by cpirrong — November 28, 2018 @ 10:16 am

  6. It does seem to be a characteristic of the left that there is only one permissible opinion on anything.

    As Orwell pointed out, the dogma is both rigid but unstable and always likely to change at a moment’s notice. He based his “Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia” thing, the perfect example, on official Soviet views of Nazism and the west between 1932 and 1946.

    The hierarchy point is exactly correct. A leftist is unerringly instructed by his prejudices to hate and revere specified groups. In a dispute between the police and striking miners, he knows whose side to take. When it gets harder is when the sides form among favoured client groups. Black police killing 17 black miners at Marikana leaves them baffled as to whose side to take because in theory, being black, they’re all beyond reproach.

    This hierarchy is, as you have pointed out, unstable. Once upon a time women were a favoured minority. Not only have they now been trumped by transgenders, they’ve been trumped so comprehensively that in the UK we have a party that prides itself on having “an inclusive definition of women” ( To point out to a male to female to transexual that he is not a woman but a surgically and hormonally mutilated man who still has a Y chromosome is, I believe, an actual crime.

    These people appear to be simply insane, but that can’t be it. What is the endgame? What do they expect to attain by getting everyone to agree that 2 + 2 = hatstand?

    Comment by Green as Grass — November 28, 2018 @ 12:28 pm

  7. On the Overton Window; yes, there’s a parallel in the UK with the election of Corbyn as Labour leader – his original nomination was due to a desire among Labour MPs to widen the window by including a more “traditional” socialist viewpoint to enter after the Blair years (about twenty of them, possibly nearly thirty, depending on where you want to put the dates). Not sure that his actual policy views were exactly what they wanted, mind. On Brexit, post-83, with Labour’s longest suicide note in history manifesto, no “serious” political party ever put leaving the EEC/EC/EU as a policy in a manifesto until UKIP began to gain proper traction, nearly thirty years later. Even the Conservative manifesto of 2015 only offered a referendum. Similarly to Corbyn, a vote to leave wasn’t what anyone actually had in mind. Amusingly, it’s the existence of the elections to the European Parliament that allowed UKIP to gain that traction and actually become a “serious” party.

    In both cases, there’s an emergent process gives rise to the new consensus which then effectively locks the (a set of) overton windows in place. Eventually another process arises, kicks the frozen window out of it’s frame, giving rise to crises.

    So, do nothing and wait – are Twitter and Facebook actually making any useful money yet? – ‘cos it’ll break anyway… eventually.
    The alternative is to do something, so, fair enough.

    The must-connect idea; the apparent power of social media is in the network; must-connect seems OK, but I’m not sure how it would reduce the anticipated or apparent power of the operator, unless other operators are allowed to exist, and Facebook et al have previously acquired and promptly effectively shutdown competing operators. Not sure what Reddit’s model is, or who owns it, but they’re not entirely immune from the temptation for censorship.

    Decouple content filtering; going with the free-speech idea, it’s not entirely clear to me how allowing content filtering to take place elsewhere solves the problem.


    Mandate content encryption between the network nodes (users). Facebook or Twitter will be able see the graphs, but they won’t be able see and thus make any decisions based upon the content. Neither will anyone else, except for the entities at the end points. Content here could easily be defined to include identifiable information – date of birth, geographic location, etc. If I’ve understood the common-carrier status correctly, this would provide it by default. The extension of this is interoperability, that any network must be open to any other – the Facebook app must also be able to connect to graphs/nodes on instagram/Twitter/Reddit and view/create content. Could impact bloggers (and newspaper sites!) that allow comments, particularly services like Disqus.

    Superstar effects – no idea. Mandate that the default position is anon/pseudonymity? Require that waivers are signed for publication of actual identity, or that it is required when certain conditions are met? Similar to declaring or meeting “market counterparty” status – certain advantages conferred, certain protections given up in exchange.

    Personally, I suspect that this sort of action would destroy advertising driven revenue generation, and cause a shift back to the subscription model. So the micro-payments problem might get resolved, or may be not. Depending.

    Either way, the internet generally still has a problem with identity and trust.

    “overcome the network effect in the stock market–essentially, socializing order flow, rather than treating it as owned by the exchange” – is this the market maker vs. order book thing, ‘cos if it isn’t, I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

    Comment by Ducky McDuckface — November 28, 2018 @ 12:35 pm

  8. “2 + 2 = hatstand”: excellent. I like it as much as “comparing apples to Tuesday”.

    Comment by dearieme — November 28, 2018 @ 1:11 pm

  9. Umm, not sure if you’re captcha is still playing up, but didn’t see any check at all on the previous comment; assumed it went into the bit bucket.

    Comment by Ducky McDuckface — November 28, 2018 @ 3:33 pm

  10. Real simple, stay off of Twitter and Facebook and don’t read either, you will be amazed how happy you become.

    Comment by Joe Walker — November 28, 2018 @ 8:31 pm

  11. The British spelling for poo works quite well in Faecesbook.

    Comment by dearieme — November 29, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

  12. I admire your brilliant dissection of the inner logic of the need to force others to genuflect to marginal saints. However, I am not sure I can totally agree with the point about private network monopolies evolving into quasi-states. I believe that their very monopolistic existence is due to the state support. Specifically, to maintain their monopoly status they must rely, among other things, on their “intellectual property rights” which does exist entirely because the state enforces it. Wit not copyright etc. they would be facing a constant risk of cloning. As soon as they deviate from servicing their clients and attempt to dictate these clients what is to be done, competitors would simply set up a clone, like twitter with no censorship, but in all other aspects identical to the original.

    Comment by Boris Lvin — November 29, 2018 @ 10:42 pm

  13. So much libertarian political theory is focused on coercion from government. Can you recommend a book or paper that takes a broader view on coercion from a political theory perspective?

    Comment by John Hall — November 30, 2018 @ 8:51 am

  14. Our esteemed blogging host @cpirrong is still skeptical on how much copyrights entrench incumbents. Online content is fundamentally different from the example of trading platforms. If I offer a security for sale on one platform, I am excluded from offering it for sale elsewhere. Not so with social media comments and content. There is no technical reason we can’t all use mult-platform clients which post simultaneously on Facebook, Handbook, Kneebook, and Toebook, and gather postings from all the platforms to present them in a uniform RSS-like feed. We saw this happen with instant messaging, for example, where Trillian and Gaim handled ICQ, AIM, MSN, IRC, Y!Chat, XMPP, etc. all at once and no platform had first-mover lock-in. Remember when Genie, Compusource, and AOL discussion groups were walled gardens?

    So where is the multi-client FB-with-alternatives software? The company that made it got hit for contributory infringement. The case law from Facebook vs Power Ventures is bad policy. Don’t confuse common notions of “intellectual property” with the depravity of IP law as actually enacted.

    Comment by M. Rad. — November 30, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

  15. @JohnHall–Yes, libertarian political theory focuses on the government as the source of coercion. One exception is John Stuart Mill, who wrote about the “tyranny of custom and tradition,” and posited that it might be more oppressive than the tyranny of one over many, or many over one. Mill’s formulation has been criticized by many libertarians, but it’s one major work that focuses on non-state coercion.

    Nozick’s famous (1969, if memory serves) essay on coercion set off an extensive and rather abstract debate about just what coercion is. I can’t say that I’m that knowledgeable about that literature, but I am just pointing out its existence.

    Richard Epstein’s basic classical liberal/libertarian framework recognizes that private market power can lead to inefficient outcomes, and countenances some restrictions on it. Common carrier status is one example, and indeed Epstein’s writing was the inspiration for my application of that to social media companies.

    Of course the non-libertarian/statist/progressive worldviews are largely steeped in the belief that private coercion is ubiquitous (e.g., bargaining imbalances between corporations and workers) and that government is necessary to correct it. This I think is the source of the widespread unease among libertarians/classical liberals to acknowledge private coercion: it seems to be playing into their enemies’ hands. The whole idea creates cognitive dissonance.

    Indeed, what we are seeing now with regards to social media is an epic role reversal. The hard-core progressives who control the social media giants shout “regulation for thee, but not for me!” and libertarians/classical liberals contemplate restrictions on private actors.

    It is all rather disorienting.

    Comment by cpirrong — December 4, 2018 @ 11:47 am

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