One of the more interesting aspects of rightwing populism, especially in the form it’s taken in the United States, is its use of traditionally leftist talking points for reactionary political ends. This is a smart strategy as leftist ideas are broadly popular, especially when directed at the unaccountable power of big business and its servants in the political class.
Part of the appeal of someone like Tucker Carlson is that he pretends to be on the side of the (white) working class (who he’s started calling ‘legacy Americans’ in an obvious racist dog-whistle) against ‘elites’ and corporations. He’s able to pull this off by being very particular in terms of the businesses he goes after.
A good example of this is offered by the ongoing critique of ‘Big Tech’ by pundits like Carlson, which is often portrayed in their media as unfairly censoring ‘conservative’ views. These arguments accelerated when the former U.S. president lost access to his Twitter account after the events of January 6th at the U.S. Capitol. While this is mostly the result of him being out of office, Donald Trump’s social media bans seem to have impacted his day to day influence over his MAGA followers and ability to steer the news cycle.
While there’s lots to criticize about this huge and varied industry that could encompass everything from app focused startups to industrial giants like Sony and IBM, ‘Big Tech’ for conservative commentators is mainly the larger social media sites, platforms they argue they are entitled to say and post anything they want to on due to the free speech guarantees of the country’s 1st Amendment.
Although there have been a number of knockoffs like Parler, Gab and Gettr that are intended to directly connect to rightwing audiences, none have taken off enough to compete with older platforms in terms of the number of people using them. These platforms have also tended to be less secure than those that came before them, with Gettr almost immediately hacked upon its launch.
Another problem for users of these sites seems to be the fact that both centrist liberals and the left are almost entirely absent from them, meaning there are no opportunities to troll and ‘own the libs’, which seems to be one of the main things much of this audience enjoys about social media just as they did earlier with the comments sections on news sites.
It’s hard to get into an argument when everyone agrees with you.
Further, while the 1st amendment is still the global standard in terms of the rights it bestows, including the right to protest, it only protects speech from government interference and doesn’t expand these protections to private enterprises. Companies can police speech however they want and did so long before the advent of social media. One example of this is the right of a book publisher to decide what to print and what not to.
These social media companies, which are international in scope and must be careful about local laws, craft their own terms of service (though enforcement can be lax) and users are expected to abide by rules against things like hate speech and medical misinformation.
Despite these rules, it usually takes a long time for rightwing influencers to face consequences for even the most outrageously bigoted commentary. Part of this may be the result of a lack of moderation by human beings, who are more able to understand nuances like satire, but a greater one seems to be money, with those content creators with large numbers of subscribers or followers less likely to face consequences for breaking the rules established by the terms of service they agreed to when they joined. In the U.S., there is also the protection offered to these companies by Section 230 of the country’s Communications Decency Act, which frees them from liability for what their users post.
If one looks at the most popular political voices on the largest of these networks, Facebook, they’re all on the right, exposing the lie in the right’s criticism of ‘Big Tech’ as being controlled by the progressive left rather than the same kinds of business interests that control just about everything else in most Western democracies.
Take the case of failed comedian Steven Crowder, whose Youtube channel has over 5 and a half million subscribers. The former voice actor for the Canadian animated children’s show “Arthur”, where he somewhat ironically played a character called “The Brain”, consistently attacks Black Lives Matter activists, feminists and those fighting for the rights of trans and other LGBTQ+ communities.
It does seem that Crowder, who at the end of 2021 received a 2 week suspension from Youtube for hate speech, actually wants a permanent ban so that he can claim he’s been ‘cancelled’ and use this to raise more money from his fans while growing his other platforms like Rumble, a Toronto based site that seeks to be the video streaming platforn for the far right.
The left in general takes a more nuanced approach to arguments against these Big Tech companies, understanding that deplatforming almost always applies to them as well and that these companies will not hesitate to go after progressive voices in the interest of ‘fairness’. Most also understand that bans are just the most powerful tool available to the companies to silence those deemed outside of the mainstream, with unaccountable algorithms determining how far a post travels online.
An obvious solution to this, which would ensure the 1st amendment would apply to users of these sites in the United States would be to make these social networks public utilities or at least regulate them to ensure fair access for all, solutions free market loving rightwingers would probably have a hard time backing.
More dangerous than these ‘free speech’ battles is the global far right’s new found dislike for ‘Big Pharma’, which is being weaponized by some commentators to argue against Covid 19 vaccination campaigns.
There are legitimate criticisms that can be made about these massive companies, not the least of which is that Americans pay far more for life saving drugs than citizens of other countries like Canada or the UK. The anger against Big Pharma seems more legitimate than the ire directed at Big Tech considering how the opioid crisis hit red states as hard blue ones, devastating many of these communities. Still, this righteous anger is being misdirected against safe, freely available vaccines that have been shown to prevent hospitalizations and death from the novel coronavirus.
Just as QAnon did in 2020 with the hashtag ‘Save the Children’, the overwhelmingly rightwing anti-vaccine crowd have decided to co-opt another slogan, “My body, my choice” from those fighting for women’s reproductive freedom. This is all the more despicable considering that many of those using the slogan oppose a woman’s right to choose and have control over her own body, rights that seem more imperiled than ever at present.
Always prone to contradicting themselves, many of the same rightwing commentators that express scepticism about vaccines also tout an ever evolving list of unproven miracle cures from hydroxychloriquine to ivermectin to Viagra. All of these drugs produced by… Big Pharma.
What should really scandalize the public is the fact that companies like Pfizer and Moderna received billions of dollars in taxpayer money and benefited from the work of publicly funded scientists and agencies but see no reason not to demand full ownership of the vaccines and the huge profits to be derived from them. This has in turn ensured unequal distribution, with poorer countries in the global south unable to provide the shots to their populations while citizens in richer countries receive boosters, a situation that might extend the pandemic as new variants emerge in these places.
Personally, I am not a believer in the idea that progressives should expend resources and energy trying to pull the far right to our side but the left should definitely be ready to point out their hypocrisy and the inconsistencies in their arguments in order to win over people sitting on the fence. After all, there are more non voters than supporters of any political party in most Western democracies.
Culture war talking points aside, the fact that the populist right feels the need to pretend they embrace so many progressive ideas shows that the left can win.