I’ve been on a free speech kick lately, but that’s because it’s a super important topic. After my Silenced review, Alon Levy tweeted a critique that I’d left out some other censorship cases. I asked him to send them my way because I’m always up for pounding away on this topic. So here are a couple of them.
One is that the US is denying people entry to the country based on their social media postings. He pointed me at a BBC article about an Irish tourist named Leigh Van Bryan who was denied entry after tweeting, “Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America.” Apparently DHS took his tweet literally.
Now there’s no global right of travel. Foreigners do not have the right to visit the United States. It’s easy to think of legitimate reasons why we might deny entry to someone. I don’t think ISIS should be able to send recruiters to the US, for example. But we should err on the side of caution. People who are not actual enemy agents, advocating violence, etc. should be given the benefit of the doubt. This case was pretty ridiculous.
In another case, it came out that Facebook will shut down accounts and/or delete information at the request of law enforcement. The case linked, that of Korryn Gaines, involved terminating her account, which she was using to live stream her standoff with the police (in which she was killed). Let’s stipulate for now that there may be a valid reason for doing this (though try to imagine your reaction if Facebook did this in response to a foreign government’s law enforcement request as they were arresting democracy activists on the streets). Her account was reinstated after the incident, but several videos were permanently deleted. That part is definitely uncalled for at a minimum.
The linked article at the Intercept – ironically co-written by the guy who called down that online hate mob on Justine Sacco when he was still with Gawker – quotes Lee Rowland of the ACLU as saying, “But there’s no question that constitutional values are not only a good idea but they’re also good for a business’s bottom line when that business is selling a platform for speech. There’s a real risk for social media companies if they’re perceived as choosing sides in a public debate; by censoring on the request of law enforcement they run the risk of becoming a propaganda wing of the state.”
Indeed. Facebook as a private company can do whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t violate non-discrimination laws or some such. So while the government can’t itself legally censor you in the US, they can ask Facebook to do it.
And again, there’s a global issue here. We can’t just look at it through the US lens. Facebook is very tight with governments around the world, many of whom are much less friendly to free speech than America is.
The fact that there is such concentrated corporate power in these social media companies, and that they are very chummy with governments, should be very concerning. Particularly since if you lose access to these platforms or are shadowbanned, it can be very difficult to get your message out.
The next battleground here is going to be over “fake news.” This is one of the new narratives about why Trump won. But one of my far left buddies was very concerned about this. He’s often sending me links to sites like Naked Capitalism or Truth Out. His worry was that this campaign against “fake news” was going to be used to shut down dissident critiques of neoliberal economics.
He’s right to think that way. Once we legitimate censorship, whether it be by government, corporation, or online hate mob, it’s inevitable that its effects won’t be limited to just the people and ideas we don’t like. And at some point we shouldn’t be surprised if we ourselves end up devoured by it. (Unfortunately, for Prisoner’s Dilemma type reasons, we may be heading there. But I hope not).
As we head into a time in which many readers here are going to want to vigorously exercise their right of dissent, I hope that everyone will support free speech for everybody. Because our own right to free speech depends on defending it for everyone, whether or not we like them or what they have to say.