The urge to censor is growing. There’s a deep and direct connection between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call to jail journalist Raviv Drucker for his investigative report on the Channel 13 program “Hamakor,” and the forced resignation of New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet because of the publication of an opinion piece by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who called for the U.S. Army to be sent in to use force to quell protests and riots.
These are not two isolated cases. They are happening in the broader context of growing restrictions on freedom of expression in countries that are considered democratic. Freedom of expression is under siege, assaulted in a pincer movement by authoritarian leaders like Netanyahu on the right and the supposedly liberal champions of political correctness on the left.
The urge to censor received a tailwind from the coronavirus. In fact, censorship of opinions is now considered a basic human right. Anyone on social media has the right to block and silence users whose opinions grate on them or threaten their worldview. Public figures, political leaders and journalists do this, even boasting of the list of figures they have silenced. Anyone with a profile on Facebook curates his or her newsfeed so that it shows only opinions they agree with.
This itch for homogeneity of thought, unity of opinions, has been prominent throughout public discourse on the coronavirus crisis. Opponents of the lockdown were systematically silenced on establishment media, and silenced on social media by social censorship, as opposed to technological censorship: The lynch. The lynch isn’t an algorithm; it’s a common tool of social punishment the purpose of which is to shame, persecute, make miserable and blacken the names of those who express opinions that oppose what one’s homogenous newsfeed is willing to stand for. The lynch conveys a message of deterrence. And the deterrence works: Most people are afraid to express unpopular opinions on social media and they apologize for them ahead of time.
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The distance between the fear of expressing unpopular opinions and the fear of thinking them is not great. Journalists take to heart the prohibitions and expectations of editors, and people who post on social media take to heart intolerance of dissenting opinions. Most people prefer to be popular with the dogmatic herd rather than stand courageously behind the principles they believe in. It’s a scary thing today to make one’s living as an op-ed writer; subscribers and social media users can bring about one’s resignation for publishing an irritating opinion. That’s what happened to James Bennet. Instead of debate, the life’s breath of democracy, the preference was to silence – the life’s breath of tyranny.
In such a public climate, Netanyahu’s call to jail Drucker is considered legitimate. Cotton’s article in The New York Times was considered a kind of thought crime by its readers. And the man responsible was metaphorically beheaded. According to Netanyahu, the reporting of information damaging to him is a crime that requires immediate incarceration. The attitude to Bennet and to Drucker is on a continuum and the difference is only in the degree of extremism.
The goal in both cases is delegitimization, punishment, deterrence, silencing and preventing the publication of certain content by the use of force. At a time when anyone on Facebook or Twitter is a little censor, the big censors gain acceptance. Emergency regulations already give the Israel Police the power to interrogate people who promulgate what is defined as fake news. It’s only a matter of time until a journalist is jailed here.