We need to stop the spread of Big Tech censorship

Facebook and YouTube must not be the arbiters of truth on Covid – or anything else.

Tom Slater

It is time to draw a line. In the fight against Covid-19, people across the world have been required to suspend many hard-won freedoms – to give up travel, loved ones, places of worship, the pub. They have gone along with it because they understand that some temporary restrictions on liberty are sometimes needed in times of crisis (even though we must ensure they do not become permanent). But one thing we cannot give an inch on is freedom of speech, our right to speak and our right to hear others, which is under serious threat right now.

An unholy alliance of corporate tech giants, government and international agencies is working to narrow the range of acceptable debate about coronavirus. Since the beginning of this crisis, officialdom has talked up the threat posed to containing Covid by an ‘infodemic’ — the World Health Organisation’s cute phrase for the spread of misinformation online. Social-media firms have been put under renewed pressure to expand their already extensive policies on what is and isn’t acceptable content. And they’ve been all too happy to oblige.

Take Facebook, home to around 2.6 billion monthly active users. During this crisis it has moved the goalposts dramatically on what can be posted. At first, it said it would continue to remove ‘misinformation that could contribute to imminent physical harm’, while deploying its army of fact-checkers to flag certain posts, depress their distribution, and direct sharers of such material to ‘reliable’ information. Just a few weeks on and it is removing event posts for anti-lockdown protests in various US states, in tandem with state officials.

Last month it was revealed that Facebook had removed event pages for anti-lockdown protests in California, New Jersey and Nebraska. A spokesperson told Politico that Facebook ‘reached out to state officials to understand the scope of their orders’ and resolved to ‘remove the posts when gatherings do not follow the health parameters established by the government and are therefore unlawful’, such as when protests intend to flout social-distancing rules.

Facebook has stressed that state governments did not ask them to remove specific posts. But what seems to have happened is almost worse. Facebook moderators appear to be banning events posts on the basis of what they reckon the laws of a particular state constitute. As David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on free expression, told the Guardian: ‘If people show up to protest – and I think the vast majority of public-health officials think that’s really dangerous – it’s up to the government to clamp down on them. For Facebook to do it just seems suspect.’

What’s more, Kaye continued, this informal arrangement reached between Facebook and state governments will make it harder for citizens to challenge instances of censorship. If a state government were to issue a formal takedown notice to Facebook, asking it to remove a post for an illegal protest, then that government action would at least be subject to a challenge in court. But Facebook, a private company, is allowed to take down whatever it wants and is protected from legal liability.

This is, in effect, government outsourcing censorship to the private sector. Even if straightforward takedown requests aren’t being made, the increasingly cosy relationship between Big Tech, governments and intergovernmental organisations is leading to elite consensus effectively being enforced on social media. In a recent interview with CNN, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said her platform will remove ‘anything that is medically unsubstantiated’, as well as ‘anything that goes against WHO [World Health Organisation] recommendations’, essentially asserting this one UN agency as infallible and its critics as heretics.

As many have pointed out, this standard is almost impossible to enforce consistently – not least because the WHO has got a fair bit wrong over the course of this pandemic, and in previous crises. But it seems YouTube’s guidelines are now sufficiently broad that it can take down any dissident post that sparks outrage. It recently banned a viral video of two doctors, Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, who run a group of urgent care centres in Bakersfield, California, discussing the data they have drawn from Covid testing, and arguing that California should lift its lockdown.

Experts and commentators have questioned the doctors’ claims and conclusions, and even their motivations (apparently one of them is a Trump supporter). But these two are not snarling conspiracy theorists. They are experienced medics giving their opinions on the data as they see it. But this apparently cannot be hosted on YouTube because, in the words of a spokesperson, it ‘disputes the efficacy of local health authority recommended guidance on social distancing’. It seems you cannot question the wisdom of the authorities at all.

As for the real snarling conspiracy theorists, they’ve also been getting booted off platforms during this crisis. David Icke has been kicked off Facebook and YouTube, where hitherto he was allowed to promote his cobblers about lizard people, vaccines and Bill Gates relatively unmolested. But for spreading the conspiracy theory that 5G causes coronavirus, among other madcap corona ideas, he has been damned by the tech giants for ‘spreading harmful disinformation’. Inevitably, Icke and his supporters have taken this as vindication that, in his words, ‘the elite are TERRIFIED’.

Mad as these people are, the censorship of conspiracy theorists is a worrying development. For years, while Big Tech firms have expanded censorship in other areas, they have resisted clamping down on Icke and his ilk. As recently as March, Facebook said that ‘claims that don’t directly result in physical harm, like conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus’ would be fact-checked rather than censored. When Facebook banned Infowars’ Alex Jones in 2018 it was at pains to say that this was for ‘glorifying violence’ and ‘hate speech’, not for spreading 9/11 or Sandy Hook conspiracy theories.

Social-media companies’ hesitancy in censoring conspiracy theories up to now was not out of any grand principle – their policing of ‘hateful’ speech is just as censorious. But notwithstanding the egotism and self-righteousness of Silicon Valley, you can understand why companies primarily interested in making money would be wary of moving more definitively into the role of pronouncing on what is and isn’t true. Until now, it seems. That they hide behind the ‘experts’ and ‘reliable sources’ makes this no less problematic for free debate.

Facebook and YouTube now monopolise huge arenas of public discussion. Writers and thinkers unable to promote their work on Facebook, or videomakers unable to upload their work to YouTube, are effectively denied access to a significant portion of what now constitutes the public square. At a time when billions of people are under house arrest, and the literal public square is largely off-limits, this is an even more sinister development. As is the fact that governments and powerful organisations seem to be working hand in glove with tech firms to enforce conformity.

Covid-19 and the policies being pursued to tame it affect everyone. We must be free to question and debate all the issues this crisis raises, insisting that no one person or organisation has a monopoly on truth and that dangerous nonsense can be defeated in free debate. And we need to make sure we have a (relatively) free internet at the end of all this. That some firms are now helping to police offline protests, organised to oppose government policy, is a particularly alarming indication of how far Big Tech censorship has spread during this pandemic. We need to flatten the curve.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Picture by: Getty.

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Peter Wakeham

27th May 2020 at 9:56 am

Excellent article Tom, but it is a pity that you have parroted the mainstream media contention that David Icke said “that 5G causes coronavirus”. He did not say this, if you check it out, he said that 5G is a known suppressor of human immune system, which makes us more susceptible to catching all kinds of viruses or bacteria, including coronavirus. By the way I do not support conspiracy theories, just facts.

Justin Smith

11th May 2020 at 10:46 pm

When do you think mainstream media will spill the beans about the true identity of ID2020, or have they been instructed to keep it under wraps for a while?

Chis Marley

10th May 2020 at 5:35 am

Government could close all social media overnight by classifying platform providers as publishers `legally responsible for all content`. This is the Sword of Damocles that maketh them do such bidding as our rulers require. However…..this would make ALL CONTENT LIABLE….left…right….the LOT. Which creates a catch22 …….the light of truth and reason and legality would shine on all. That would be ….PROBLAMATIC. For those who care please read `LEVIATHAN by Thomas Hobbes. (free on kindle). Be kind my friends but I must ask `who among us are those who would choose to be blind?

Steele Rudd

11th May 2020 at 7:44 am

Good points.
What’s worse than an undemocratic government seeking to impose censorship?

Having it imposed by fawning corporates eager to keep the right to pillage users.

Louis Le Marquand

9th May 2020 at 2:43 pm

Censorship is an act that can only be enforced by Government. It is something which is upheld in law, and backed up with force, coercion and the police force. Private individuals agreeing to mutual contracts which my put limits on speech is not censorship. A private school which chooses to hire a man but on the mutually agreed term that he cannot swear in front of the children – and will be fired if he does – is not a form of censorship.

Facebook own their social media platform. They built it and they manage and maintain it. It is a private platform, and you agree to its terms and conditions when you sign up to it. If you don’t like it then leave it, or better yet finance a competitor. Facebook and the like are not a public utilities just because you think that they are or because many people use their services – many people also use McDonald’s, Wallmart or Primark, that does not make them public utilities. A private business does not magically become public property by enumeration. “Public,” which is crude collectivistic term is what is directly managed by Government.

““Censorship” is a term pertaining only to governmental action. No private action is censorship. No private individual or agency can silence a man or suppress a publication; only the government can do so. The freedom of speech of private individuals includes the right not to agree, not to listen and not to finance one’s own antagonists.” – Ayn Rand

Ben Shirley

9th May 2020 at 5:59 pm

All correct. The trouble is Facebook, Instagram et al now take the place of the public forum. If I have anything to say, and I wish to say it to an audience, I may not do so anywhere in public nor even in my own home thanks to the present house-arrest. Therefore, I must rely on the only platforms where people are able to gather and socialise en masse: online social media. If those platforms do not allow free speech to take place, we’ve got a problem.

I agree that social media companies are not under any obligation to uphold freedom of expression. However, since the government does not run its own online public forum, people haven’t got any choice but to use social media to get their opinions across.

This is why the house-arrest should never have been accepted, never mind welcomed. If public communication is prohibited and online communication is moderated, we are truly powerless.

Anjela Kewell

8th May 2020 at 10:37 pm

Just maybe these so called madhatters are not so wrong after all. I watched a video of Icke and noticed he actually wasn’t spouting weird stuff. He never connected 5G with coronavirus so I don’t know where that comes from. But he does connect 5G with vaccines and it seems so do the Swiss Government.

I really do not know how clued up these people are but I do know the media, and that includes Spiked, were calling Tommy Robinson some pretty awful names and never worried themselves when his media presence was wiped out. The globalists thinking they could deplatform him and he would lose his following. However it turns out he was correct all along.

If you do not stand up for free speech and truth at the beginning and you do not support fellow free speech advocates, like TR , Martyn Parker, Laura Southern and the rest of those citizen journalists you allowed to be thrown to the wolves, then that famous statement about who is going to save you when they come to take you down is now playing its eerie tune.

Thomas O’Malley

8th May 2020 at 9:41 pm

Whose morals do you want built in?! Hitch ~ Free Speech. https://youtu.be/4Z2uzEM0ugY

“Bear in mind, ladies & gentlemen, that every time you violate or propose to violate the free-speech of someone else you, IN POTENTIA you’re making a rod for your own back. Because the other question raised […] is simply this: Who’s going to decide?
To whom do you award the right to decide which speech is harmful or, who is the harmful speaker or, to determine in advance what are the harmful consequences going to be that we know enough about in advance to prevent?
To whom would you give this job? To whom are you going to award the task of being the censor? Isn’t it a famous old story that the man who has to read all the pornography, in order to decide what’s fit to be passed & what is fit not to be, is the man most likely to become debauched?

To whom you would give the job of deciding for YOU, relieve YOU of the responsibility of hearing what you might have to hear?
Do you know anyone? Hands up, do you know anyone to whom you’d give this job? Does anyone have a nominee … ?”

michael savell

8th May 2020 at 5:14 pm

It would be too bad if Gates,Fauci and the WHO,let alone a non medical Government got it’s facts wrong wouldn’t it.All this means the people who really understand something about Virology and how it works have absolutely no voice.If one or two guys go bad then a lot of people will die or never get a vaccine that works.If they finally come up with something will you be able to trust them bearing in mind you are eliminating those in the forefront of virology who vehemently disagree with the tactics employed at this time and possibly a little later.

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