Runaway Rant: Is Facebook/Instagram Going Too Far With Censorship?

If you can’t beat ’em. Ban ’em!

While Facebook and Instagram ostensibly banned “far right extremists”, banning people one doesn’t agree with itself resembles a “far right extremist” tactic. Banishing the opposition grates against my more progressive sensibility. Censorship is a tool historically associated with abuse of power, silencing dissent, and squashing the underdog. The specter of unaccountable acts of censorship should be as welcome a weapon in modern society as is the return of measles.

[Before I get started, I’d like readers to ask themselves if they feel afraid to speak out about some topics, and this one in particular, because they themselves might be targeted for some sort of punishment, humiliation, or banishment? If that’s the case, than something’s gone terribly wrong, because we should feel not only safe, but encouraged, in a just society, to express our intelligent and measured opinions on any topic. At a time when people are being banned and censored, even if we think they are reprehensible, there’s no way of getting around that if their rights are being curtailed, so potentially are ours, because the rules of the game have changed in such a way that the individual is more vulnerable. Ostensibly a triumph of good over evil, it’s simultaneously a victory of the rich and powerful over the ordinary citizen. The clear and chilling message is that if you espouse the wrong opinion your internet presence can be extinguished.]

If you don’t know about this news story, Facebook and Instagram have done a purge of what they coin “right wing extremists”, including Paul Joseph Watson, who, unlike his associate, Alex Jones, I don’t find that much to very serously object to. It’s one thing to ban people who conspicuously and deliberately concoct conspiracy theories which would distort the reality of anyone who bought into them. It’s another to squelch someone because he’s a punchy opponent who you see as a threat to your favored political party. If they could get away with it, they’d ban Trump, and he’s the president. [And, no, I’m not a Trump supporter. I was for Bernie.] Even more threatening, anyone who posts a video or article from the offending parties without explicitly condemning them can themselves be banned! If I share this article on Facebook, I can be banned for “hate speech” when there’s no hate in it, and I am standing up for the higher moral good and the more broad-minded standard of justice. Socrates would be spinning as on a rotisserie in his grave if he knew that 2,418 years after he was put to death for expressing controversial opinions, we are patting ourselves on the back for silencing people, and calling ourselves the defenders of justice and progress.

I’ve said to friends that I wish the left had an equivalent to Paul Joseph Watson, because he’s very effective at making short, persuasive videos for YouTube articulating the conservative position, including graphics, video, and all the bells and whistles. I’d say he’s about on par with Tucker Carlson, who Facebook would also ban if they could. On the left, someone like Jimmy Dore just can’t put together as concise of videos, and The Young Turks have compromised their reputation perhaps irreparably by not bothering to research their stories before running with them, and not recanting after making egregious mistakes (and that’s if you can stomach them blatantly force-feeding  their social justice narrative) . People like Chris Hedges or Abby Martin tend to be long-winded (me too), and don’t get out the <10 minute, bite-size chunks of news coverage.

While people tend to hunker down in their confirmation bias echo chambers, some of us actively try to listen to more than one perspective in order to get at more of the truth. About a decade ago I saw a video in which Camille Paglia advocated doing just this, and at the time I was so liberal — I got most my news from watching Democracy Now and reading CounterPunch — I couldn’t abide countenancing the conservative perspective. After the left started scapegoating the average white American as the source of all the problems of the world that were formerly blamed on the ruling elite and multi-national corporations, I started listening to critics of their position. Other people can be persuaded that I am the source of all evil, but convincing me would be as difficult as getting me to believe that I shot Kennedy.  You can’t see yourself as the evil other.

If you watch or read both the conservative and liberal coverage of most any given story, the skewed presentations become comically agenda-driven. It’s startling what is left out of, say, Democracy Now’s coverage of current issues. The days of aspiring to rigorously objective reporting are long gone. Nowadays, everyone is hammering home their agenda, choosing stories, and reporting on them in such a way that molds a worldview. It does not leave it up to you to decide for yourself in the least. Shutting down conservative voices eradicates the possibility of hearing both sides of an argument.

In short, I don’t approve of banning PJW because I don’t believe he’s offensive enough to merit it, and “if you can’t beat ’em, ban em” is not a progressive position in the real sense of the word. I also wouldn’t ban Milo Yiannopoulos, though he’s crossed a few more lines. Both Milo and PJW are charismatic Trump supporters, and perhaps that’s why they are a threat. I’ve never heard either of them incite violence against anyone, unless we redefine (as the radical strain of the left is so fond of doing) “violence” to mean that an argument we don’t like is tantamount to violence. We’ve seen this sort of charge made against evolutionary biologists who maintain, from a scientific perspective, that there are indeed biological differences between the genders. If you aren’t familiar with these new conservative voices, it would be a bit like banning Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly in the 90’s. We have to think about whether this development is truly progressive, or an abuse of power.

The big question here is whether or not private businesses, if they are powerful enough, can act as arbiters of justice for society.

Facebook and Instagram, both owned by the same people, have overstepped their role by selectively banning their political opponents. They don’t just bounce people off their platform, they effectively block those individuals’ access to social media, internet representation, and their ability to earn a living.

The part about thwarting their political rivals will bother some people, because it presumes there’s an ulterior motive beneath the posturing of fighting against hate. And people might also say that this is not about “wrong opinion” but about “hate speech”. There’s a bit of a fine line, though, between “hate speech” and “speech that is hated”.

And there’s a difference between “hate” or “white supremacy” or being a “Nazi” and merely being labeled with that, not entirely dissimilar to being labeled a “witch” and truly being one. The burden of proof goes to the accuser, and  there should be repercussions for grievous slander.  If the person is genuinely guilty of “hate speech” and/or “inciting violence”, that is a matter for the law, and the accused is entitled in American democracy to a trial, and a jury of his or her peers. What ever happened to “innocent until proven guilty”? Now, you are guilty and there’s no opportunity to prove you are innocent. It may not even matter if you are innocent. And there are surely present cases where people have been severely punished for content deliberately taken out of context and misrepresented to mean nearly or literally the opposite of the speaker’s original intent.

How do we feel about the Chinese government interceding to monitor the internet and punish those who express views critical of the Communist Party? is that only different because, well, they are bad and we are good?

None of what I am saying is defending actual hate speech, calls to violence, racism, white supremacy, sexism, etc., all of which I abhor. The problem is with using false accusations, grotesque exaggeration, new definitions of words, and deliberately skewing facts in order to create a false impression in order to achieve political ends, bolster a narrative, or gain power. For example, Jordan Peterson has been vilified as a white supremacist, a member of the alt-right, a sexist and a misogynist, none of which are true, in order to discredit him.

When people are going after college professors or academics such as Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Sir Roger Scrutin, or Michael Rectenwald, there’s a problem. These are very intelligent, educated, careful scholars who are absolutely against hatred and violence. Attempts to smear them with labels in order to discredit their arguments doesn’t rise above freshmen logical fallacies, mostly of the strawman and ad-hominem attack variety. The radical new definition of a bigot — which if it can include them —  can include anyone who doesn’t march in lockstep with a radical left ideology. Words are now synonymous with violence, but we can take it a step further and say that if you don’t agree with the words of the revolutionaries, than your words are implicitly violent. If you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem, in which case you are a white supremacist, Nazi, Islamophobe, homophobe, and all-around stuffing for Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”.

These are precisely the labels hurled at intellectuals such as Roger Scrutin, notably in a recent NewStatesman hit piece, but if we are at all honest, even those who make such accusations would have to admit that Scrutin isn’t literally a racist, homophobe, or Islamaphobe, but can be insinuated to be one via rhetorical extrapolation. We might even get them to admit, over a beer, that said extrapolation is also a goodly amount of exaggeration. In reality, it’s total misrepresentation and slander. Those throwing the stones with intent to kill can’t fathom that there can be another legitimate, or more legitimate world view than the one they were nursed on. If someone doesn’t agree with the leftist narrative, they simply must be a right wing monster. The conclusion comes first, and the evidence and supporting critical argument never.

For example, Roger Scrutin criticized the Chinese communist party for stamping out individuality and independent thought, hence trying to make its citizens into robots. This was shortened to Scrutin saying Chinese people are robots, and thus he ws labeled a racist. As an immediate unforeseen consequence of the hit piece, Scrutin was sacked from his appointment as housing advisor for the British government. Today, one is banished as a fanatic for the crime of sensibly resisting fanaticism. Thus, charges of “hate speech” are often red flags that the accused is actually the victim of a campaign of hate.

Facebook’s current targets are much less easy to defend than traditional intellectuals such as Peterson or Scrutin, but the same tactics are used of employing rhetorical extrapolation and debatable interpretation in order to declare a social crime has been committed. Thus, someone who has enacted no physical violence, nor implored anyone else to do so, can be guilty of violence for not agreeing to, for example, a policy on immigration. I’m quite certain that a lot of people would consider a vote for Trump to be support for something like “the continued genocide of indigenous peoples”.

Facebook’s defense for banning Watson and others is that they are a private company and allowed to refuse service to anyone who violates their terms of service. Note that the same people who will agree with this vociferously also condemn Starbucks for insisting on its right to not serve people who violate its rules. The problem is the double standard, which is a red flag if our objective is justice or doing what is ethically right. If it’s fairness and justice we are after, than we need to have an agreed upon standard that applies to everyone equally, regardless of identity or political affiliation.

Why is it OK for Facebook to shut down conservative pundits like Paul Joseph Watson, but not OK for Starbucks to ask someone to leave the store if they aren’t going to buy anything? The worst case scenario in the latter instance is you go to a different branch of Starbucks or another coffee shop. But if Facebook shuts you down, there’s is no real alternative. While Facebook is a private company, it is also one of the top social media platforms. Can we extinguish someone from social media as a right of business operations, or does everyone have a right to social media?

Facebook is operating in this sticky area where while they are a private company they are also offering what has become an essential public service. The worse case scenario is they are taking advantage of this unresolved territory merely to vanquish their political opponents in a quest for power. The presumed and best case scenarios is that Facebook is fighting against evil in order to protect innocent lives from hatred and violence. My personal opinion is that they believe they are doing the latter, which they also very well know is expedient for the former. That’s rather obvious. They’d have to be some really devious Machiavellians to knowingly deceive us for political ends.

Enron was a private company and conservative. Would it have been OK for them to refuse access to electricity to people who espoused far left liberal positions which they deemed to be morally wrong, threatening, inciting violence, or the destruction of property?

We are reaching a point where “wrong speech” (right out of Orwell’s 1984) is punishable by destroying someone’s life in any and every way possible. The inclination to do this – for the punishment to be excessive rather than suit the “crime” – already suggests the presumed moral cause is tainted. Those who seek to punish, to make en example of someone, to humiliate and destroy them, are not examples of tolerance, generosity, forgiveness, giving people the benefit of the doubt, or giving people a second chance. If you are hurling stones, wielding a pitchfork, or clamoring to tar and feather someone, chances are you are finding excuses to be cruel and sadistic. And if you think it’s OK for the gloves to come off for certain types of people, based on identity or biology, well, that can’t be in the name of fighting prejudice or discrimination, but is rather a spectacular instance of both.

Would we be OK if Mark Zuckerberg were a Trump supporter, and Facebook, instead of banning “far right extremists” was banning “far left extremists”? I suppose some people struggle with the latter conception, and associate all authoritarianism with being on the right [I used to think this way!]. Well, no, ideologues can occupy either end of the spectrum, and if capitalism can go too far that doesn’t mean that communism can’t. Pol Pot was ostensibly freeing the proletariat from being exploited by a corrupt ruling elite. I think we can all agree that when one orchestrates a genocide, they’ve gone too far. Both sides can go too far, promote hate (look for scapegoating), and incite violence.

A conservative Facebook might ban groups like Antifa or Black Lives Matter on accusations of being or having ties to terrorist organizations or activities, and inciting violence or civil unrest. How about they ban Greenpeace for environmental terrorism, vandalism, trespassing on private property, etc? Pro-Palestine groups would be banned for association with terrorists. The same people who would be shouting from proverbial rooftops about the injustice applaud Facebook for doing the same to their own rivals.

This moral quandary brings us back to one of the foundational moral imperatives: “Do onto others as you’d have them do onto you”. And here we are going against that maxim, doing something we wouldn’t want done to us, but doing so because we believe we are right and they are wrong.

The assumption for going around the law is that the left is on the right side of history, and upholding the moral good. I’m quite certain people truly believe this. And I’m equally certain that conservatives with very different, and sometimes opposite conclusions view themselves as also on the side of virtue and justice. A conviction that one is right does not make one right, hence why the founding fathers conceived of a complex fail-safe system to safeguard against mere subjective opinion and conviction. This is not to say that the judicial system is foolproof, or that our best standards of justice might in the future be recognized as somehow or other cruelly shortsighted. Nevertheless, a jury by peers is superior to executive decision by a business leader.

As it stands, private businesses are taking justice in their own hands and crushing individuals they deem to be the enemy. I don’t like them having that sort of unchecked power because it erodes the freedom and security of the individual citizen. Note that any social media platform can flick you into internet oblivion by attaching a label to you, and for the crime of having come to a different conclusion about what the true moral good is.

The risk is that deliberately, or even innocently, private companies are or will take dispensing injustice into their own hands. My opposition to this is similar to why I don’t support the death penalty. I just don’t like the idea of the state having the power over me to kill me. It makes me feel powerless, and vulnerable to cruel, vindictive, or stupid injustice.

The people that burned the witches alive, or crucified Christ, did so in the name of the moral good, and with absolute conviction. You can probably think up some current examples as well. A video shot in Indonesia of publicly whipping homosexuals comes to mind.  This is why REAL liberals and humanists oppose torture, the death penalty, and private companies taking it upon themselves to destroy people’s lives. Excessive punishment must be rigorously justified, without ulterior motives or side benefits, and without double-standards or hypocrisy.

I trust the rule of law more than an individual arbiter of justice, especially if that arbiter is un-elected, unaccountable, and his or her qualification is wealth and power. Mark Zuckerberg is a multi-billionaire in his 30’s, and thus occupies a protective bubble of unimaginable power and privilege that shield him from the direct vulnerability to reality most of us live in. He’s anything but a jury of ones peers.

Good authoritarianism only appeals to those who it favors, and when we employ the tactics of the enemy we become the enemy.

[Note here that I think, perhaps erroneously, that my opinion is ethical and fair. That doesn’t mean it unequivocally is. I gather in a democracy this is something that’s negotiated by people who have different needs and desires , and a compromise is come to.]

~ Ends


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