Discover more from Random Minds by Katherine Brodsky
Artists under Tech Censorship
In the modern world we rely on tech companies for just about everything for our everyday lives. We send and receive digital currencies through platforms like PayPal and Venmo. We rent accommodations through services like Airbnb. Hail rides via Uber and Lyft, with some areas not even having taxi services readily available anymore. We find jobs through LinkedIn and ZipRecruiter.
But what if all of these tech companies one day just conspired to cut you off of their services? What would you do? How would you operate in a world that’s almost entirely digital?
In recent years, we’ve been witnessing an increasing trend of tech platforms choosing to de-platform certain content creators based on their speech. (And not just content creators, regular people as well). There have been many reports of PayPal cutting off services without even providing a reason, sometimes even keeping their funds. One creator on TikTok told me that her account was frozen and all her earnings were kept by the company as well—ironic given that they essentially profited off of the same content that they deem to be inappropriate enough to kick her off the platform. Several people have even encountered similar experiences with banking institutions which terminated services without providing cause (Triggernometry, is a recent example in the U.K.). Airbnb was recently under fire, though they ultimately reversed course after much media coverage, for banning the parents of a controversial media personality off of their platform merely for being related to her.
Another person I spoke to was banned from LinkedIn after sharing articles that questioned the use of psychiatric drugs in certain cases, despite including disclaimers that this was not medical advice—this kneecapped him professionally and no appeal was granted.
The companies, of course, have their own rights to determine who they serve and what speech they publish, and their rights need to be weighed against those of the people they serve. Nonetheless, much of what’s been happening isn’t getting a lot of attention in the public domain and can have significant impact on the future of free expression—especially that of artists.
I spoke with a few of them about their own recent experiences:
Meanwhile, the campaign funds raised were instantly refunded to the backers and Indiegogo removed her access to campaign records, so she was unable to access names and contact info for her supporters.
“There are countless cases of online platforms canceling artists, writers, musicians, speakers, etc,” says Paley, “My specific case is the only one I know of where a crowdfunding platform canceled a campaign after it successfully closed. Indiegogo were acting exclusively as a financial entity at that point. I think my case is more comparable to PayPal banning Colin Wright, than crowdfunding platforms shadowbanning active projects they dislike.”
Now that Paley has had this experience she feels that no platform is safe without regulations that would protect its users for wrongthink.
Consequently, she ended up publishing a blank comic book as a form of protest. In a piece for Quillette, she writes:
“As a form of protest, I made Compliance Comix: the same panels and voice balloons scrubbed of characters and words, essentially an empty comic book that complies 100 percent with Indiegogo’s terms of service.”
Rumor has it that backers were also sent a surprise “mystery” comic along with the blank one.
As to whether private companies should be able to make their own choices about platforming individuals or ideas they don’t agree with, Paley makes the following argument:
Her experience has showed her that she is still a target for her speech. “Every year I have a glimmer of hope that maybe I’m no longer a target, that maybe this cancel bullshit is over. But then something like this happens,” she says.
“It does seem like more people are waking up to it, but it’s taking so long. By the time hypothetical user protections are in place, it may be too late for many: careers ruined, voices silenced, a generation of artists unable to think critically, the institutionalization of cowardice, and an unsalvageable decline of public discourse.”
Like Paley, George Alexopoulos (@GPrime85) is also a cartoonist, working mostly in the political satire space. In his case, he took years to grow his base of supporters via Patreon, which placed his account “under review” in December 2022 and refused to lift it until he deletes certain posts not only on Patreon, but also other platforms like Twitter and Instagram – which he, in turn, had refused to do. “Thus, Patreon hasn't given me the dignity of outright ‘banning’ me; they’ve forced me to punish myself by refusing to cooperate in my own struggle session,” says Alexopoulos. George tells me that he hasn’t even bothered checking the links to the comics they had sent him which they find objectionable because “one of the many purposes of art is to challenge interactions between creators and viewers. While this can make dogmatic puritans (or philistines) uncomfortable, I don’t consider it part of my job to explain my work to those who can’t, or won’t, listen. Either audiences “get it,” or they don’t.” After a few warnings, Patreon closed his account.
Of course this has had an impact on his financial life. “I’ve lost a few thousand dollars per month,” he says, “This is no small thing, since I could’ve almost filled one tank of gas with that money!” But, on the bright side, he admits: “I’m even more free to say and draw whatever I wish, with even fewer consequences. All they did was free me of my obligations to my generous Patrons, leaving my hands unburdened to pursue more work without guilt.”
This trend of cutting off outspoken wrongthink artists from their funds is a trend that Alexopoulos has been observing for a while. “At risk of sounding hyperbolic, it’s a slow, indirect form of murder, isn’t it?,” he says. He recalls his Pontic Greek great-grandparents escaping the death marches in Turkey, fleeing north along the Black Sea, where they escaped starvation and exhaustion. “Sadly, that placed them in the USSR, where my great grandfather, his wife, and their daughters were exiled on the grounds that he was ‘conspiring to assassinate Stalin.’ This was bullshit, of course. The Commies only used such excuses to kick refugees out. My grandmother told me this story, of how her family fled back to Greece when she was a girl: They were deeply impoverished and had nothing but each other. She picked tobacco as a girl to support her family, hands turning black from the leaves.”
He seems to draw parallels here:
“So instead of directly killing you & your family, these villains will ‘arrest’ you, cut you off from income, starve you slowly, even torture you if they can get away with it - until you admit the error of your ways and submit. They make you punish yourself. The pattern Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about decades ago, continues today.”
But, he says, losing his Patreon is nothing compared to what his grandparents had lived through. “Fortunately I’m a lazy, uneducated, stubborn bastard who prefers minimum wage jobs so I can produce art on the side.”
He says that cartoonists use hyperbole to make points: “It’s in the instruction manual when we sign up to become one.” And yet, people like Dilbert creator Scott Adams had his cartoons pulled from newspapers for “reflecting hyperbolic language back at fools who generated it in the first place.” (He argues that Adams’ point was about double standards). Alexopoulos also cites Sargon of Akkad, Lauren Southern, and Sydney Watson as others who have had their Patreon accounts shut down. “Recently, I heard Tim Pool and Five Times August had their music kicked off Bandcamp. Accounts just vanished overnight.”
But, he says that either companies will learn that kicking off creators will cost them their business or creators will move on and survive elsewhere. “The USSR eventually starved themselves to death,” he says.
When it comes to the choices of individual companies, Alexopoulos believes that it would be hypocritical for him to demand free speech while trying to compel a private company not to exercise theirs. “They can cancel the accounts of anyone they wish, and I can say anything I like, on any platform I like,” he says, “The law gives my speech protection; it can’t compel others to listen. If using the First Amendment costs me a few thousand bucks per month, so be it. History is far kinder to those who kept it real and made sacrifices, than those who abuse their power to lie, bully, and oppress.”
He says that while Van Gogh barely sold any paintings in his lifetime, he continued producing them. And although Emily Dickinson barely published any poetry while alive, she wrote for her own satisfaction. “Whether I earn income from my work or not, my goals remain the same as theirs: Personal satisfaction, mastery of my craft.”
According to him: “Art exists so that humans can express themselves freely, push societal boundaries, challenge established norms. Art should make us more free, not less.” He argues that a “few decades ago it was stuffy Right-leaning puritans squelching the art of the Left. Today it’s the opposite. To see who the good and bad guys are, simply look at who’s trying to express themselves, and who’s trying to silence them.
”As someone infected with the spirit of the Artist, I feel compelled to go where the action is and produce the best work possible, to find the limitations of any sandbox I’m thrown into and try to push it. I could've produced ‘safe’ art and earned more money, but who remembers those people? Standing on the front lines of culture means we might get vegetables thrown at us, but nobody ever achieved glory sitting on their ass in the safety of their bedroom, doing nothing.”
Interestingly, the experience has given Alexopoulos a chance to re-examine his passions, and he has recently released his first children’s book, Goofberry Pie, about a mouse named Strudel whose mother asks him to pick a special topping for his father’s cake, so he quests outside to pick the best. While on his adventure Strudel meets friends, and has to make some tough choices. It’s available through pokidot.etsy.com, where parents can also find handmade items like plushies, clothing, bibs, and other gifts. He also is working with popular YouTuber Razorfist on illustrating a Pulp Western.
There are so many more stories like Paley’s and Alexopoulos’ that affects people on all spectrums of thought. It’s no doubt a deeply complex issue. On the one hand, private entities should be able to have some say as to what they publish, but on the other, it leaves the door open to discrimination. It also can have a silencing effect on artists who engage in what might be considered to be “wrong-think” — and while one might suggest that they can always go to another platform, in reality, that might not be so realistic when there’s a certain homogeneity amongst big tech players and when new rules are introduced arbitrarily after a creator has spent years building up an audience, since it’s the equivalent of them having to disband their existing business, move, and build a whole new one. Further, there is a lack of transparency when it comes to the rules and often creators aren’t even given explanations as to what the objections are in the first place, like in Paley’s case. Or become financially liable when they shouldn’t be (eg. via taxes or withheld earnings).
This is a topic that merits a lot more attention and public discourse.
How do you balance private company rights with free expression and anti-discrimination? Share your thoughts below.
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Who am I? I’m a writer with an overactive imagination and a random mind. Outside of Substack, you’ll find my work in publications such as Newsweek, WIRED, Variety, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Esquire, Playboy, Mashable, CNN Travel, The Independent, and many others.