Future Tense

How “Big Tech” Became the Right Wing’s 2020 Boogeyman

A man in a suit, tie, and congressional pin speaks in front of a microphone.
Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks during the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law hearing on Online Platforms and Market Power on July 29, 2020. Pool/Getty Images

On June 30, 2020, Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, appeared on Fox Business to celebrate a bipartisan coalition in the House of Representatives’ plan to limit the power of “Big Tech”: Google, Facebook (now Meta), Twitter, and other large software and services companies based in the western United States. Although Democratic and Republican lawmakers did end up cooperating on d antitrust legislation introduced in late spring of 2022.

What makes the coalition interesting, though, is that “Big Tech” means something different to each side. For Democrats, the phrase signals unfair competition cemented by the influence and stature of a handful of technology companies. For Gaetz and his allies, the “big tech” concept is far more insidious: It refers to a thought-controlling group of corporations that interfere with free speech of conservative voters and unfairly influence elections against Republican candidates.

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The Jan. 6 congressional hearings have invested a great deal of time in the conspiracy theory of a rigged election. So far, though, the January 6th House Select Committee hasn’t engaged with a key part of the stolen-election narrative. Long before November 2020, President Trump and his political allies sowed doubt in the ability of voters to reason through their choices at the ballot box. They argued that Google, Facebook, and Twitter were so biased against Trump that their content moderation policies distorted public discourse, preventing any possibility of a fair election.

In May 2020, the flogging of Big Tech became a proxy for support of Trump. Gaetz and other Trump supporters accused companies like Facebook and Twitter of shadowbanning Trump supporters, unfair moderation practices that suspended accounts or removed influential posts of public figures, even “buying off” members of Congress or owning them outright. With the election approaching,  Gaetz appeared to be priming the pump ahead of a widely anticipated showdown at the polls.

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That spring, like many members on the House Subcommittee on AntitrustLegislation–Democrats and Republicans alike–Gaetz spent weeks taking to the airwaves and the internet, testing out different messages about Section 230. A controversial part of the 1996 U.S.
Communications Decency Act
, Section 230 grants protection to internet service providers and online companies against libel and defamation lawsuits for information posted on their websites by third parties. Section 230 also became the strawman for public concerns about big mainstream tech companies moderating content about elections, COVID, and other tricky topics. In a May 27 tweet, Gaetz bragged about his proposed bill to strip tech companies of immunity for libel under federal statutes.

A tweet from Matt Gaetz says: "#BREAKING: I'm working on legislation to revise Section 230 so we don't have election interference from companies like Twitter. LISTEN for more details and my hot takes on Big Tech." The tweet links to a podcast that says FIREBRAND with Matt Gaetz, described as "Episode 12 - Working on legislation revising Section 230, Trump deprives ... "
Twitter
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That same day, Donald Trump tweeted a similar message: “Big Tech is doing everything in their very considerable power to CENSOR in advance of the 2020 Election. If that happens, we no longer have our freedom. I will never let it happen! They tried hard in 2016, and lost. Now they are going absolutely CRAZY. Stay Tuned!!!”

The public pressure campaign on mainstream technology companies continued with that summer’s congressional hearings on the market power of Facebook, Twitter, and Google. During the hearings, Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, spelled out the stance of the pro-Trump wing of the party. “We all think the free market is great,” Jordan said, “But what’s not great is censoring people, censoring conservators and trying to impact elections.” Soon afterward, Trump tweeted a threat: “If Congress doesn’t bring fairness to Big Tech, which they should have done years ago, I will do it myself with Executive Orders.”

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The emphasis on Big Tech was part of a broader strategy of undermining the idea that the United States was a safe and functioning democracy. Over the year-long 2020 election cycle, high-profile Trump supporters and members of Congress weaved many of those narrative strands into a thick braid of far-right conspiracy theories and angry conjecture that was, in turn, used to whip up anxiety over the outcome of the vote before it even took place. In the world imagined by this strategy, technology companies were part of a multipoint effort to rig the election, with Twitter and Facebook stifling speech online and antifa intimidating the voters into submission.

Despite the constant claims about conservatives being censored, however, right-wing conspiracy theories flourished on social media platforms on the way to Nov. 4. By the time the election had taken place, #StoptheSteal was already an established movement online and the occasion for protests nationwide. This created a post-election crisis;, Twitter and Facebook attempted to thwart the further spread of election misinformation and disinformation by suspending accounts and blocking groups that incubated conspiracies and misinformation. But while these suspensions removed harmful sources and spreaders of online misinformation, they also fueled more conjecture about Big Tech conspiracies to suppress conservative thought and pro-Trump political organization.

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In the end, pushing a more conspiratorial idea of Big Tech, one that was an antagonist of true American values, sowed doubt in the minds of voters about the fairness of elections. But that was not the only doubt generated by the mythology and repetition of the “Big Tech” narrative. By establishing an elitist, morally inconsistent, and left-leaning Big Tech, Gaetz and allies helped install a perceived moral high ground for emergent, alternative platforms like Parler known as alt tech.

Parler began rising in popularity in early 2020 as mainstream platforms cracked down on misinformation, the COVID crisis worsened, and election campaigns built momentum during the primary season. It allowed far-right ideas, narratives, conversations about the election, and other topics to percolate with little to no oversight. Parler’s user base paled in comparison with the billions who on Facebook and hundreds of millions on Twitter. Indeed, Parler represents only a small corner in an expanding constellation of social media platforms with loose content moderation policies that have cropped up as alternatives as Big Tech firms have stepped up their moderation of content in recent years. These so-called “alt-tech” sites began to proliferate and take on more prominence as Trump began to prepare his re-election campaign amid a series of White House scandals.

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But, in the spring of 2020, at precisely the moment when Gaetz and others appeared to be stoking their campaign against Big Tech, Parler’s user base had grown exponentially. Company officials claimed that the platform had approximately 15 million users.

Data from Google Trends, news databases, and Twitter indicate that there was a brief lull in June and July in public attention to the Big Tech issue as national news coverage shifted to other more urgent issues driven by Black Lives Matter and protests related to local and national officials’ COVID response. But during that time frame, Parler welcomed every new member with messages referencing the hegemony of Big Tech, and in doing so it kept the idea of Big Tech as anti-democratic boogeyman on life support, driving it to the forefront of attention for its users.

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It is no surprise that being reminded of the monolithic and dangerous aspects of “Big Tech” was table stakes for those joining Parler in June of 2020–any perceived freedoms afforded by the platform were meant as a tacit critique of bigger technology platforms and their practices. By demonizing Big Tech as all-influential, left-leaning, and capricious, Gaetz, Trump, and allies produced a two step messaging cycle that sowed doubt in election integrity: 1) Elections are rigged by thought controlling Big Tech; and 2) Alt-tech platforms can then define themselves against Big Tech, thereby reinforcing the prior political messaging.

The events of Jan. 6, 2021, will continue to receive investigative scrutiny over the coming week, months, and years. But while the forensic process of finding culpable individuals and parties is underway, it is important to remember the specific mythologies of technology platforms that make up so much of the context of distrust in democracy today.  The “alt-tech vs. Big Tech” framing of issues and ideas that made their way through traditional media and then Parler are not just mere symptoms of an echo chamber run amok. Rather, emerging venues like Parler itself are both medium and message; they are a living performance of the idea that fairness cannot be achieved through dialog with others, because the channels of communication have been irreparably tilted. The question now—as the 2022 midterm elections and 2024 presidential election loom—is not whether we should expect to see a rinse, wash, repeat cycle emerge on Parler and other alt-tech platforms like Gab, Gettr, and Rumble. It’s when that pattern will erupt into mass political violence again.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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