For a movement that thrives on whining self-pity, and the notion that white men are persecuted for saying the unsayable, a ban from social media may seem like a prophecy fulfilled.
Facebook’s deletion of conspiracist alt-right accounts including "Prison Planet" Paul Joseph Watson and Infowars host Alex Jones, (as well as Nation of Islam hate preacher Louis Farrakhan) has led to an outpouring of grief from the already permanently outraged "conservative" social media.
Inevitably, Donald Trump weighed in, energetically retweeting many of the banned accounts, and promising that he would continue to "monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS" on social media platforms, and raising the great rallying cry: "This is the United States of America - and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH!"
A noble sentiment indeed, even if it does come from a man who threatens defamation suits against his critics with alarming regularity.
But while it’s easy to laugh at hyperbolic hucksters like Paul Joseph Watson (who greeted the ban by tweeting a picture of himself looking wistful in front of a sunset with the words "Remember Us" repeated 20 times), the move by Facebook, does raise genuine questions over the nature of free speech, censorship and publishing in the 21st century.
In cities all over the world, we are gradually getting used to the idea of the privately-owned public space. Near my office in London, a new development named Coal Drops Yard, filled with chi-chi bars and shops, promises "a place to stumble upon something new, to meet with the unexpected. A place where art, commerce and culture come together." Its walkways are run and maintained not by the local government, but by a private developer.
New York’s Hudson Yards, a similar development designed by the same architect, Thomas Heatherwick, recently triggered controversy shortly after it opened, when visitors learned that the developers claimed full rights to anyone’s photos and videos taken in its eminently Instagrammable surroundings. The developer backed down amid influencer outrage, but nonetheless the incident served as a reminder that the citizen does not have a *right* to be in and around these spaces: we are there at the sufferance of the owners.
The web as we know it has operated as a series of privately-owned public spaces for years now: the hegemony of Facebook means that not participating in it seems like an act of resistance, and being excluded from it is punishment. This is doubly true for new media figures such as Watson and Jones, who rely entirely on third-party platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to get their message out.
Over-reliance on Facebook’s algorithms can have consequences: In the UK, pro-Jeremy Corbyn websites including The Canary, Skwawkbox and Novara Media, whose business models relied almost entirely on their content being shared widely on Facebook, suffered massively when the platform stopped favoring their style of content.
While none have been barred from the platform as yet, it’s clear that the hard-right claim that Facebook favors left-wing sites is simply untrue.
But if Facebook is choosing who can and cannot post on its platforms, isn’t that editorializing? And can (should) editorializing possibly be content-neutral?
Several years ago, a pro-Kurdish organization asked me to observe a meeting they had set up with Facebook. They claimed that Facebook was censoring Kurdish political content - possibly, they muttered, at the behest of the Turkish government.
No, the Facebook representatives replied. We would never do that. But they did say that the company had a policy on terrorist-related content, and that they took their lead on what constituted a terror organization from the U.S. State Department, which classifies the Kurdish PKK guerilla group as terrorists.
So this was not Facebook’s own judgment call. Facebook itself would not take on the responsibility of defining who was and who was not a terrorist group, but played it safe by using the State Department’s definition.
Facebook can no longer claim to be neutral about the kind of content it allows on its network. But is the banning of Jones, Milo, Laura Loomer et al strictly speaking censorship? And if so, is it a level of censorship that we are comfortable with?
Others might argue that the banned polemicists are guilty of incitement, given the recent attacks on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Al Noor mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, both apparently carried out by white supremacists who specifically referenced the views espoused on these conspiracists' social media accounts.
Any case of incitement would be likely better dealt with by the courts, but this raises a question that we don’t yet seem equipped to deal with: can one prosecute, say, a man posting a video rant from his flat in one part of the world for the actions of a murderer in another? Where would such a prosecution even take place?
The obvious solution, and the worst nightmare of companies like Facebook, is that you prosecute the platform that has hosted the content.
This is the dilemma the platforms find themselves in. They can defend themselves from prosecution by removing controversial content and accounts - but, by doing so, they appear to be making editorial decisions, making themselves more akin to publishers than "mere conduits" of information, and therefore more open to litigation.
We may well be OK with this. Facebook, swamped with negative press about political extremists spreading their messages on the platform, may well yearn for the days when the site was just baby photos and cringe-worthy reunions.
But we should be wary of allowing Facebook and the other big platforms to dictate entirely what is said online. As the age of utopian web libertarianism comes to an end (appropriately enough illustrated by an image of a kicking and screaming Julian Assange being taken into detention), we should start a serious, global conversation about what free speech means - and what we want it to mean.
We can hardly expect consistency from the hard right on the issue of free speech. So we should be wary of allowing the conversation to be dictated on their terms. While Trump and his conspiracist fans shouting about censorship may be amusing in the short term, allowing free expression and censorship to become a partisan issue will not end well for anyone.
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