Bringing Back Blogs in the Age of Social Media Censorship

You’ve probably never heard of Robert B. Strassler. That’s OK, you’re not alone.

Early in his career, Strassler worked in oil fields, but he always had an interest in the classics (the formal designation for the studies of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations). Eventually, Strassler’s hobby became an obsession. He went so far as to author his own translation of Thucydides, the Athenian historian of the Peloponnesian War.

The problem was nobody wanted to read Strassler’s book. This was in the 1990s. It was more difficult to publish to the web and there was no social media. Strassler approached every Ivy League institution he could find. Nobody was interested in reading a manuscript about Thucydides penned by an oilman with no formal credentials. That was the situation until Strassler contacted Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist professor in Fresno, California. Hanson agreed to look at the manuscript and was astounded by Strassler’s work: a brilliant, highly readable translation of Thucydides including maps, diagrams, and charts. Hanson helped the disconnected oilman get in touch with a literary agent. Strassler’s landmark edition became the standard translation of Thucydides. Still read today, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War is as successful as any book on the classics can be—in the age of Twitter.

Those of us who take the idea of democratic publishing seriously rejoice at how the field has opened to include anyone who has something to say and is willing to write it down. That’s why we should be more alarmed when we see social media companies crowd the spaces once occupied by blogs and do-it-yourself content creators. We see a decline in diverse opinions as the web quickly becomes less free and more autocratic.

How many Robert B. Strasslers are being stifled today by biased algorithms and arbitrary “community guidelines”?

In March, as COVID-19 exploded into a worldwide panic, the web gatekeepers we’ve come to rely on quickly massed around a singular interpretation of events and stifled dissenting voices—even mild ones.

YouTube, the second largest search engine in the world, demonetized all videos that mentioned “COVID-19,” “Coronavirus,” or any term related to the pandemic, and herded viewers away from content creators and toward the Center for Disease Control (CDC) — the same CDC that first advised against wearing masks. Even medical practitioners who deviated slightly from the prevailing vision were removed from the platform after gaining millions of views.

Experienced journalists who questioned official decrees (surely, the role journalists are expected to perform) were targeted with hit pieces and character assassination by their own peers.

As author/professor Cal Newport noted in an op-ed for Wired, much of the dissenting viewpoints and on-the-ground data have become part of the mainstream conversation even after being suppressed by a small group of decision-makers:

We don’t necessarily want to trust engineers at one company to make the decisions about what topics the public should and should not be able to read about.

How many times have you clicked on a link in a tweet and received a message as shown in the following screenshot?

Image of Twitter's unsafe link warning.
Twitter unsafe link warning.

Adults should be trusted to determine what kind of content is harmful (if such a thing exists) without the assistance of Twitter employees and their “partners.” And, are these warnings actually meant to protect people or simply to shield Twitter from corporate liability? I think we can guess what the answer is.

It’s not only those without official-sounding credentials who are being barred from sharing content. Creators who clearly have experience in their fields of study are also facing arbitrary censorship.

The Great Courses Plus, a streaming service that produces college-level video courses taught by actual professors, was threatened with a ban from Google if they did not remove COVID-19-related content from their app. In an email to subscribers, the team wrote:

Google informed us they would ban The Great Courses apps if we continued to make [Covid-19] in-app content available. We are working with Google to ensure that they understand our content is factual, expert-led, and thoroughly vetted, so that we can remedy this misunderstanding as soon as possible.

The videos in question included content from Dr. Roy Benaroch, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine; Dr. David Kung, Professor of Mathematics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland; and Dr. Kevin Ahern, Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Oregon State University. How or why these scholars were found unworthy of Google’s imprimatur is a mystery. As the public does not presume to give Google programming advice, perhaps Google could return the favor by not pretending to be experts on epidemiology, immunology, and virology.

The only way to see these offending videos is on the Great Courses website, where Google’s authority is not absolute. It happens to be a WordPress-powered site. For intellectuals and laymen who value free expression, having your own website is becoming the only way to make sure you can keep it.

The problem of pitting credentials against experience in a zero-sum conflict is fixable, and WordPress is a big part of the solution.

WordPress allows capable scientists, economists, and medical professionals in other fields to write at length about their ideas without fear of being blocked by arbitrary restrictions. Also, the five-minute install (which does take a little more than five minutes for many people) imposes enough of a barrier to entry to discourage cranks.

We like to think of the internet as a true egalitarian system, where every voice is given equal consideration, but deep down we know that’s not exactly how it works. Network effects tend to form hubs of concentrated influence around a handful of websites. This isn’t always a bad thing. A recipe blog with poor taste and no pictures deserves fewer readers than a blog with great-tasting recipes and high-resolution images.

There is still room enough in the network for certain nodes to grow in size and influence based on the quality of their content. A node with enough backlinks, good organic search rankings, and high-quality content will gain an audience, and be able to keep it, without fear of corporate reprisals or aggressive algorithm updates.

If we really care about democratizing publishing, we won’t always like what we read. There will be disagreements, but democracy requires a literate population eager for debate. We can challenge, discuss, and learn.

There are a lot of Robert B. Strasslers out there in the network, waiting patiently to be heard.


25 responses to “Bringing Back Blogs in the Age of Social Media Censorship”

  1. Thanks for addressing this. While I don’t always agree with the message, that message has a right to see the light of day. People often forget the many evils that have begun with a censoring of media, then eventually, of thought.

  2. Thanks Chris for a fair assessment of our current state of censorship by big social networks. Citizen journalists need to keep up the pressure on the truth.

    Big Social will either correct course or risk loosing their audience to new competitors. The truth is the truth.

  3. “Adults should be trusted to determine what kind of content is harmful (if such a thing exists) without the assistance of Twitter employees and their “partners.” And, are these warnings actually meant to protect people or simply to shield Twitter from corporate liability? I think we can guess what the answer is.”

    This assumes a lot about the average reader and their critical thinking skills. Which unfortunately are in a critical decline and grossly missing in modern discourse. I’d like to remind the author that the internet is for anyone. Adults, dogs, children, teenagers, etc. Well-educated, informed adults are not the only folks being influenced by what is on the Internet. With our still rather new-found ability for anyone to publish anything on the Internet comes a responsibility for us a society to address misinformation – regardless of where it’s published or by whom.

    For example, you mention the confusion around the CDC changing their stance on wearing masks. While they did a poor job communicating the change (more evidence becoming available that the virus spreads via the air), your jab only furthers distrust in the professionals and experts we need to rely on during emergencies such as a global pandemic (See “The Death of Expertise” and the further erosion of critical thinking, rise of righteous ignorance, and lacking trust in professionals).

    Leveraging the danger of misinformation in the time of a global pandemic to argue against “censorship” is a distasteful hot take. It’s barely tangential to WordPress, which is obstinately what the Tavern is about.

    For more on the confusion around the pandemic I’d suggest folks take a look at this article I found comprehensive and well-written. Of course, don’t just trust me or one source. :)

    • “your jab only furthers distrust in the professionals and experts we need to rely on during emergencies such as a global pandemic” – well, that jab was earned, I’m not sure if those experts at CDC are good ones and worthy to be listened to and certainly, they were not the ones to be relied on… please read what medical professionals write about CDC: We need the real CDC back, and we need it now –

      “But ask how many Covid-19 tests have been done, and the CDC’s doesn’t have an answer. Want a daily update on how many people are getting hospitalized for Covid-19? The CDC isn’t tracking it. Want to know if social distancing is making a difference? The CDC doesn’t know.
      During this pandemic, when accurate, timely, nationwide information is the lifeblood of our response, the CDC has largely disappeared.

      Beyond its testing failure, the CDC has been slow and its response inadequate in another area where it has always excelled: evidence-based guidance. Throughout this pandemic, it has been slow in coming, confusing, and not necessarily evidence-based.

      The agency was slow to suggest that we should end large gatherings. As masks for health care workers became scarce, it recommended that health care workers wear bandanas and scarves with zero evidence that these would protect workers from the virus. Investigative reporting has uncovered unclear and disorganized communication to state public health agencies. And the CDC’s restrictive early testing guidelines did not necessarily align with what was understood about disease symptoms and risks at the time.
      Americans rely on the CDC for evidence-based guidance. We have not received it.”

    • Misinformation can arise in a variety of ways, including from experts. Here’s a horrifying example of sensationally wrong information that authorities have distributed, causing serious social harm:

      Independent, critical voices are vitally important to have well-functioning societies. WordPress has done great good in supporting independent voices and democratizing publishing.

    • It’s barely tangential to WordPress, which is obstinately what the Tavern is about.

      I did want to touch on this bit. WordPress is about publishing. Its mission statement is literally to democratize publishing. We can talk about code, plugins, and themes until we’re blue in the face, and we will certainly continue doing so. However, at the heart of all this — the thing that is the reason why WordPress exists — always comes down to the freedom to publish content. And, it would be a disservice to our readers to shy away from tough discussions on the subject matter.

  4. I respectfully say the follow: I disagree with your post.
    First of all…In the US there is the first amendment (Free Speech), in Canada we have the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Freedom of Expression).

    Free speech is between you and the US Government.
    Freedom of expression is between me and the Canadian Government.
    Same for all other Free Speech laws in other countries.

    Social Media companies are private entities. Their rules. Which you agreed when you signed up for an account with those Social Media Companies.

    Just like, you have rules in your house. I can’t just go in your house. Take off my pants and underwear. Poop in your hallway. Put my underwear and pants back up and leave.

    A lot of the information, specially with COVID, is misinformation. It can harm people out there.

    I have even gotten spam e-mail with cures for COVID, some special melon from somewhere in the Amazon jungle of Brazil. For only $29.95+%7.95 S&H. Obviously it is fake. How many people are going to believe that and take the pill and think they can walk around like nothing will happen to them?

    Just like there are rules in commenting on here. If any of my comments that I make here (not a lot) don’t make it. Is Matt or Justin censoring me? Of course not. They are allowed to not allow my comment.

    I have seen comments xenophobic comments against Chinese because the whole thing started in Wuhan, China. I live in Canada and there are thousands of ethnic Chinese in Canada. Should xenophobic comments be allowed on Social Media against Chinese-Canadians? Of course not.

    With the whole demonetized content on Youtube…you are not entitled to any money for your videos. Just because you create content, does not mean you are entitled to ad revenue. Get Swag (t-shirts, hoodies and so forth), get Patreon, Get onlyfans.

    Maybe if you want to see true censorship, you should go to some of the birth countries of immigrants to Canada/USA/UK/France.

    Turkey, Syria, Lybia, Iran and China are among a list of countries that practice true censorship.

    I say the above, in a very respectful manner.

    • The article does not argue that social media should not be able control the content on their platforms. The argument presented is that if people want to get out from under that control, they should start their own blogs. By and large, I would imagine the author of the piece would agree with your stance. The approaches toward the subject are simply different.

      And, yes, this is absolutely censorship.

      Both the government and private entities can engage in censorship. When we delete a comment here on the Tavern, it is 100% censorship. Maybe the word itself brings out negative feelings that we generally associate with unlawful, government censorship. However, the term applies beyond the scope of the government.

      • “When we delete a comment here on the Tavern, it is 100% censorship.”

        You (Justin), and previously Jeff, are/were very fair about deleting comments in the Tavern. However, other authors religiously deleted comments that expressed the slightest negative opinions about Gutenberg and how WordPress is operated in general, regardless if the opinions were true or not, and also note that foul language was never used. That is why the number of comments are increasing especially on articles that you personally post. On top of that, both you and Jeff were and are very truthful and fair with the current state of affairs, meaning that Gutenberg will be awesome, but not yet, every update is 2 steps forward and one backwards, and not everything is going according to plan. Tavern stopped being this “propaganda” machine, and in my eyes, you gained the credibility back. I’m so glad you joined the Tavern team, I just wish Jeff would come back, I miss his podcasts – maybe you should start one as well to pluck that hole that Jeff left behind.

        I believe you wrote an article here about the Tavern statistics, and this might be a good indication why people stopped commenting or outright ignoring posts – I still do for certain authors, but never your posts.

      • I agree very much. “Censor” in ancient Rome was a public office, held by a respected elder who was elected once every 5 years to do a “cleaning up” of the membership of the governing body. The “censor” was supposed to be fair-minded, ideally, but strict. He didn’t hold office for more than 18 months. He also personally contributed money and guidance to the building of public works projects, like aqueducts and roads. Not that we have to use the term that way, but it does seem to get at the spirit of the idea to say that “censors” should be public servants, fair-minded moderators of public discussion. In an ideal world.

  5. Yes, WordPress may be part of the solution. But it is also a insignificant part of the problem.

    WordPress democratizes publishing, but it also greatly lowers the bar for bad actors in society to cheaply and easily spread misinformation on a massive scale. And that is a huge problem for functioning society as we head into the future while trying to battle non-partisan threats like COVID-19.

    I have yet to see anyone who is promoting WordPress acknowledge and address how WordPress enables and empowers bad actors, and I have yet to see Automattic take any step at all to try and ensure that WordPress is not used for bad. And unless and until a significant effort is undertaken by Automattic to curb use of WordPress in ways that harm society and threaten health and safety of everyday people, articles like these ring extremely hollow with me.

    And these are comments from someone who has exclusively worked professionally with WordPress for over 10 years.

  6. I have noticed over the last 10 years that traffic to blog sites has gradually gone down. People seem to have a hard time typing in a url and rely on apps that become addictive. Social media sites play in to modern human’s narcissistic tendencies and put actual ideas and content at the bottom of the hierarchy of importance. This is really sick and unethical. Just read my blog.

    • I also want to add that the definition of the word “publish” in the modern internet has been twisted. Part of definition of “publish” is that people who publish make money off of their works. It is not simply about ideas but also business. That Twitter and Facebook are not considered publishers and responsible for the content is strange. They are a type of content syndication which is in essence “publishing.”

  7. Strassler’s translation of Thucydides is NOT the standard. Martin Hammond’s is ( Victor Hanson is a controversial right-wing political ideologue as well as a classics prof, and many classicists think he distorts the ancient texts’ meanings in the service of his ideology. Just putting that out there, fwiw.

    I want to add only that it’s worth taking a look at how and why the gates are kept. It should always be possible to question and challenge the gatekeepers, on the basis of logic and other qualities. And gatekeepers need to be replaced and revised often. Sometimes they are not needed at all, and should be kicked out. But in our current economic and governmental system, a great amount of money can be made by simply lying to people. And if there is nobody checking up on the lying, a lot of people can be (and are regularly) harmed and even killed, all for the sake of money. The supposed Covid-19 controversies all seem to boil down to: will you pay me money to protect you? and how much?

    It comes down to this: As long as we have an economic system in place that encourages lying and cheating, we need to have a cadre of logical, calm folks who are trusted to sift through the lies, as much as humanly possible, and report back. Right now, that job has been left to the social media and internet gurus themselves: even they don’t want this job, but they do it to some degree, and I do thank them for trying even a bit. But we need a stable, non-partisan group to be put together at some point, for our own protection. would not have the popularity it has, were it not for the overwhelming encouragement our system gives liars who want to make money. We can change the system, or we can live with the gatekeepers.

    • The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes your “facts” are the one true fact. Throwing around names like snopes which has a clear left-wing bias and will call misremembered numbers a “pants on fire lie” doesn’t help the argument for gatekeepers. What this COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is now more than ever the “authorities” should be questioned at every move. You were right in saying:”The supposed Covid-19 controversies all seem to boil down to: will you pay me money to protect you”, except it was the very CDC and WHO that were shouting nonsense to all of us in hopes of gaining more funding, so I believe they deserve every bit of mistrust and scrutiny they have earned.

      What is clear now is that these social media and data companies are politically driven and morally corrupt. We don’t need more gatekeepers, we need less gates. Self responsibility must be the paramount expectation of the individual if we wish to have a free society.

      • I don’t agree. Pointing out bias is not the same as thinking I know “the one truth.” Responsibility is definitely key, but the system is rigged (as you would agree). As a society and a community, albeit a large one, we need to come to an understanding about what constitutes fairness, impartiality, and trustworthiness, and set up our own gatekeepers together. That discussion has yet to happen.

      • Facts are facts, truth is truth. Whether we accept it is a whole different conversation. Free speech is your right to tick me off, or agree with me, true? Or, is your concept of truth “what is true for me may not be true for you?” If so, is that true?

  8. SPOT ON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Way to go Chris…., thank you. Listen, I don’t have to agree with everyone or please everyone with my content and ideas, but I will listen to other views first before making any judgments for myself, and that is how this all works in a free society. But, there are some who do not want such a thing, they actually despise free speech and everything that comes with it.

  9. I agree with the premise of the post title, but less so with its content. Social media is absolutely a walled garden, and has been chipping away at the open web for a long time now. But part of that is the fault of bloggers themselves. In the late 2000s, comment sections became overrun with spambots posting ads to fake Air Jordans and Gucci handbags. Site owners could not (or were unwilling to) block the deluge, and moved discussion over to Facebook, which hires moderators and had better anti-spam features at the time.

    Result: they began posting more on Facebook, because of its network effects, and because a large portion of the human race was already there.

    WordPress alone isn’t the answer to bring back a web-centric (as opposed to walled-garden) model for publishing. What is needed is, as mentioned before, network effects. So things like Web Mentions, small features that link different sites to another, sort of what web rings used to be back in the ’90s. And correct me if I’m wrong, but can take the same approach that YouTube and others have, can they not? BlueHost, HostGator, GoDaddy can as well.

    Going all the way down the supply chain, you may just be better off hosting a website on your own server. And if you’re at that point, you likely have the ability to use something that’s much more lightweight and fit for purpose than self-hosted WordPress.

    Let’s not forget that social media networks are private entities and have the right to remove or block any content that appears on their “property”. If you fall afoul of their sometimes arbitrary moderation guidelines, that’s unfortunate. But it’s not unreasonable; there was never any promise made that your content would be allowed to stay up indefinitely or even at all; you are a guest on their platform, just as a commenter is a guest on WPTavern. You can vote with your feet and leave if you don’t feel that you’re being treated fairly.

  10. Re: Matt/Automattic making sure WordPress isn’t used to do bad things by bad actors: Lord knows I’ve given Matt specifically a lot of very harsh criticism when it comes to accessibility, and I still think he’s earned all of it along with the possibility of future criticism, but when it comes to making sure WordPress doesn’t get used to do bad stuff by bad people, I’m going to have to come to his defense. I’m doing so because the GPL, (under which WordPress is licensed), makes it clear that the people who download and use WordPress can do whatever they want with it, and further, anyone can download and use it and pass it around. So even if Matt were inclined to keep bad things from happening with it, (I have no idea if he is or isn’t, but I’m not inclined to believe that he has some secret desire for bad things to happen or anything), he quite literally can’t do a damn thing about it. WordPress is licensed under the GPL because it was forked from something else that was licensed from the GPL, and that license provides no mechanism for any kind of exit. I’m not a lawyer, and I have no idea if the GPL version 2 can be retroactively modified to allow for moral decision-making with regard to distribution and right-to-use. But if that’s possible, then the people anyone who wants to change this, (and I’m not sure I can exclude myself from that group anymore), has to convince RMS and his associates at the Freedom Software Law Center, and good luck with that.


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