The debate over censorship and freedom of speech online is back at the top of the news agenda in the USA after President Donald Trump tweeted his support for a number of far-right figures who have been booted off Facebook and Instagram.
In his tweet, Trump promised to “monitor the censorship of American citizens” with the clear implication that he might decide to take action against Facebook for its actions.
Facebook shuts down US far-right voices
The tweet was made after Facebook announced that it had permanently banned a number of high-profile right-wing activists.
These included Alex Jones, famous for his controversial Infowars site. Regular readers may recall that we reported last year on Jones having various social media accounts either removed or suspended after being accused of pedalling fake news. Now his Facebook and Instagram accounts are gone for good.
Jones is not alone in falling victim to the Facebook cull. Former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who has made numerous highly controversial claims about subjects as diverse as Islam, paedophilia, and feminism, is also now banned.
So too are the likes of Laura Loomer, Paul Joseph Watson, Paul Nehlen, and Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan. All have been accused of spreading hate speech, anti-Semitic content, or fake news in the recent past.
Not only are their personal sites being removed for good but so too are any fan sites and affiliated pages.
Facebook claims that this action is in line with its policy to “promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology”. They described their presence on both Facebook and Instagram as being “dangerous”.
It is a strong statement and while the comments made by many of these people will be deeply unpalatable to some, the question of whether it is actually dangerous is a complex one.
A question of freedom of speech
The move also raises some serious freedom of speech issues. While you may not like or agree with what Alex Jones and the others have to say, should that preclude his right to say it? Many people on all sides of the political divide would say no.
However, the fact that the majority of those banned are from a right-wing, alt-right or far right background is only serving to add fuel to the claims that Silicon Valley’s big tech companies are guilty of showing political bias in their handling of such people.
The argument goes that while they are more than happy to take far-right polemicists offline, they do not take similar action about far-left activists who write similarly unpalatable content relating to Israel and countries currently suffering under socialist dictatorships such as Venezuela.
The debate has raged in US political circles for some time now. Republican lawmakers have even held official hearings to probe whether right-wing voices are being censored in the US.
Trump himself has previously questioned the practice and recently said that his administration was “looking into” to video bloggers who support him, Diamond and Silk, who claim Facebook have restricted the reach of their content.
But his latest tweet has really bought the issue back into the spotlight as it implies that he is considering taking action against Facebook and other big tech companies.
Trump used Twitter, another platform which has been accused of censorship, to say, “I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms. This is the United States of America — and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH! We are monitoring and watching, closely!!”
No easy solution
The debate goes to the heart of the ongoing global debate about the way in which social media and other online sites are now replacing more regulated mainstream media outlets as conduits for information.
It is a debate to which there are no easy solutions. On the one hand, no-one can possibly support the spreading of fake news and content which provokes racial or religious hatred. This should be the case regardless of which side of the political spectrum they originate.
But, on the other hand, freedom of speech is a right enshrined by law and something that has been fought for by generations of people.
Many people have lost their lives to defend the right the freedom of speech and no-one wants to see that right undermined or free and democratic countries like the USA move closer to the situations endured by people living under authoritarian regimes such as Communist China, theocratic Iran, or Putin’s Russia.
There are technical solutions that can help prevent excessive censorship of this kind. The likes of Alex Jones can still set up accounts on Facebook anonymously using a VPN such as ExpressVPN to hide their IP Addresses.
But it is only a matter of time before Facebook gets wind of new pages and an inevitable game of cat and mouse ensues.
Most people would agree that the decision over what can and can’t be censored shouldn’t be made by the tech companies alone. But these are private companies that no-one is obliged to use and they must have the right to some say in any regulations that affect their platforms.
The most likely end to this debate is that western governments and tech companies will have to sit down and thrash out an agreement that is agreeable to all. But, when that happens, it is vital that ordinary internet users have their voice heard too.
Not everyone holds or espouses the sort of views that the likes of Alex Jones like to share. But when the internet is censored, it is something which affects every internet user and they deserve a voice in how this ongoing debate is eventually resolved.