Censorship by billionaires, applauded by the left

The Facebook boycott shows that the prospects for online freedom are bleak.

Tom Slater

Multi-billion-dollar companies are demanding that other multi-billion-dollar companies censor what we can say and read online, and liberals and left-wingers are applauding. If you want an insight into how deranged and unprincipled supposed progressives have become, it doesn’t get much clearer than this.

This of course is the Facebook boycott, the decision of more than 300 advertisers, including corporate giants Unilever, Coca-Cola and Pfizer, to pause their advertising with the social-media giant until it does more to moderate content and, in particular, censor ‘hate speech’.

That so many people can’t see this for what it is – the mega rich demanding limits on what we all can read and say online – is remarkable. A headline on Axios refers to the boycott, with a straight face, as a ‘bottom-up revolution’, while also noting that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are involved behind the scenes. Because, as we know, all the best ‘bottom-up revolutions’ are launched by billionaires and literal royals.

That this was primarily sparked by two posts by Donald Trump is even more ridiculous. On 26 May, Trump posted about mail-in ballots in California, spreading baseless doubts about voter fraud in the state. A few days later, on 29 May, he posted ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’ in response to the riots breaking out across the US following the death of George Floyd, urging tougher action by the authorities.

Twitter decided to flag the posts, fact-checking the former and posting a warning label over the latter. But Facebook decided to leave the posts up, without any additional flags or labels – arguing, quite reasonably, that social-media companies should not be meddling in how elected politicians speak to the public. This was met with fury among advertisers and even Facebook’s staff – who staged a ‘virtual walkout’ last month in protest against this refusal to take action on Trump’s ‘hateful rhetoric’.

That these people seem to think it is justifiable, or frankly even practical, to cancel a democratically elected president speaks to their remarkable moral arrogance. Facebook has now said it will effectively bring its policies on public figures who break the rules in line with those of Twitter – ie, leaving offending posts up, given they are in the public interest, but flagging them appropriately. But critics who had previously cheered Twitter’s response immediately said the changes ‘didn’t go far enough’. Perhaps they won’t be happy until Trump is handed a permanent ban.

Regardless of what one thinks of Trump, this really isn’t about him. Free speech is as much about the right of people to listen and decide for themselves as it is about the right of speakers to say whatever they want. Censorship is always motored more by fear of a supposedly gullible public than it is of a supposedly incendiary speaker. This was certainly clear from comments made by Rashad Robinson, of the organisation Color of Change, who criticised Facebook’s supposedly meagre rule change, saying that allowing the public to ‘judge for themselves’ whether a post by a public figure is false or hateful simply ‘won’t cut it’.

This will also not stop with Trump. The hysteria of recent weeks has turbo-charged a deeply illiberal trend whereby Big Tech is being encouraged to clamp down on offensive speech. Twitter recently booted far-right provocateur Katie Hopkins and trans-sceptical sitcom writer Graham Linehan off its platform. Meanwhile, Reddit has just purged ‘The_Donald’ Subreddit, as well as one devoted to the left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House, over allegations of harassment and hate speech among users.

That, amid all this, Facebook has been painted as hopelessly laissez-faire suggests online freedom is in real trouble. Because Facebook is hardly some bastion of free-speech fundamentalism. Long before this latest scuttle with advertisers it has had significant policies restricting hate speech. It has also kicked prominent hard-right people off its platform, often in quite shady circumstances: reports suggest it went looking for justifications to ban them, when existing rules proved insufficient. Now, in response to the boycott, its hate-speech rules have been broadened further.

Facebook has caught flak in recent years for refusing to fact-check political ads and ban conspiracy theorists. Becoming an ‘arbiter of truth’, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has often said, is not a line the company is willing to cross. Refusing to meddle in political campaigning or literally pronounce on what is and isn’t true is perhaps the least we should expect from a social-media company trying to maintain some semblance of impartiality.

That its attempts to hold this line have been so widely criticised, and that it is now beating a hasty retreat, in response to both the Black Lives Matter moment and the Covid crisis, shows just how bleak the prospects for online freedom are. That this corporate censorship – this empowering of billionaires to control what we can see, read and say – is being applauded by the left is nothing short of demented.

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

Picture by: Getty.

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