Internet Companies and the Blueprint for Postmodern Totalitarianism

Screen shot of an inexplicably flagged and removed Craigslist ad for wargamers

Two weeks ago I made an ad on Craigslist looking for more people who might be interested in playing miniature wargames and tabletop RPGs. In the first few hours after posting, I received several emails (some of them pretty strange, but that’s a topic for another time) expressing interest. But after that, complete silence. I didn’t think much of it, but when I logged in yesterday to post an ad for my church’s Christmas services, I saw that it had been flagged and removed.

Now, Craigslist does not give any kind of explanation why it’s been removed, and did not offer any specific complaints so that I could correct them, nor did it give any forewarning for me to do so. In their page that offers to explain why posts are flagged, it assures you that almost all removals are for prohibited posts or violating TOS, but admits that sometimes they are just removed by algorithm. I re-read their TOS and double checked the prohibited postings and, no surprise, nothing in the ad is objectionable on that front. The picture at the top of the page is the full ad, so check it out for your own satisfaction.

Another proffered possibility for removal was that it was placed in the wrong category or in the wrong geographical region. I placed it in the ‘Activity Partners’ category, which then, as now, seemed the most appropriate. There is no explicit definition of the categories anyway. As far as the geographical location, I was originally going to post it in another city which I deemed closer, but Craigslist itself said I should put it elsewhere, which I did.

I emailed Craigslist demanding an explanation, but of course received none.

What’s noteworthy about this? Nothing, really. This is exactly how Internet companies act, and they’ve been acting that way for a long time. They produce convoluted and ever-changing (and arguably illegal) terms of service, updating them at their whim with no recourse to you, but really I don’t know why they bother with it, since their enforcement mechanisms are inconsistent to the point of caprice, and they aver that they have no obligation to explain to you exactly what rule you supposedly broke and when. If you don’t like it, you should just stop using their “service.” Well, OK. Done and done!

I’ve been through this before with both eBay and Paypal, the former being particularly Stalinist. I was almost always a buyer on eBay, and yet they hit me with a restriction based on fraudulent selling. The sanction they imposed on me was some ridiculous limit in the amount of items I was allowed to sell per month, a limit which I had never come close to before. Nevertheless, I was not going to let them get away with it. I actually got one of their know-nothing managers on the phone and demanded an explanation of what, exactly, I was accused of and upon what evidence. The woman (it’s always a woman, isn’t it?) leveled a nebulous accusation of some kind of ‘association’ with a fraudulent account, though she also refused to identify the account, or explain the means by which they supposedly discovered this accusation. When I asked how my history of buying and selling squared with this accusation, she said that it didn’t matter(!). When I asked how I was supposed to defend myself against their non-specific allegations when they could not even name the specific act I was accused of, she said that there was no means of defense and that they were under no obligation to provide me with one.

A couple of years ago, Amazon informed me that one of my scores of honest and innocuous product reviews would not be posted. Why? They wouldn’t say, just that the content was not allowed. It was a review of a Woody (from Toy Story) talking doll, which I noted was inferior in almost every way to another Woody talking doll from the same manufacturer, but was cheaper. I can only assume that this is what they were angry about, trying to direct customers to a cheaper item, but that was not clearly against the vague “rules” of their review system. Certainly, much worse have been said about my own books on Amazon, including ridiculous personal attacks by people who Amazon confirms did not actually buy the books. But I am not a multi-billion dollar toy company, so sod me, right?

What we see in these one-sided user agreements and opaque, kafkaesque proceedings is nothing less than the shape of the modern totalitarian state. To be sure, it is a more polite totalitarianism than in the past, where the tyrants at least had the physical courage to try to force their victims into labor camps or arenas filled with lions. While the threat of physical violence is always waiting in the wings, they find it more efficient and less personally dangerous to rely on slander, censorship, deplatforming, shadow-banning, and the threat of financial annihilation. Murdering people is risky; it outrages the conscience of bystanders, and sometimes the intended victims shoot back. But the tolerance for ‘mere’ social ostracism and financial destruction seems infinite. “What are you complaining about? It’s not like they’re putting you in prison!” burble the left-wing authoritarians, who would like to do just that. “It’s capitalism! Get over it, snowflake!” guffaw the perpetual loser (but somehow still arrogant) conservatives. “It’s a private company!” gobble the imbecilic vulgar libertarians who never, ever pose any obstacle to the state they allegedly oppose.

A hatred of injustice and concern for the fair treatment of all people, not merely the wealthy and powerful, had been a peculiar hallmark of western civilization. To be sure, we did not always live up to it, but we were almost unique in our willingness to see value and common humanity in the little guy. But this is a Christian virtue, born from the teaching that every person is made in the image of God and has their own dignity, and we should not expect to see it prevail in a post-Christian society. All that is left now is the worship of power for its own sake.

2 responses to “Internet Companies and the Blueprint for Postmodern Totalitarianism”

  1. The death of accountability is one of the main reasons things don’t work any more. No one is in charge, everyone is just following “policy” or “legal advice” or “best practices”.

    It goes from school teachers and shop clerks all the way up to the top – who got fired for 9-11? For covid?

    But anyway… a clubhouse! It’s been my dream for quite a while. Tell us how it goes!

    • Indeed. Diffusion of responsibility is now baked into all of our institutions, which is why they are all poisoned and failing. It is one of the big reasons we are becoming a Low Trust Society, and there is no evidence of a Low Trust Society being able to maintain an advanced and stable state of civilization without outside help.

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