Our democracy is traveling down a slippery slope of censorship by private internet portals and the mainstream news media is saying nothing.
A funny thing happened as I prepared to post the story on Facebook though. RT had posted the article I read, so I decided to avoid using one foreign-funded, left-wing news organization posting about the censorship of another. As of midday on August 15, all I could find essentially was a commentary on CommonDreams, a headline mention on Democracy Now!, and tweets from independent media journalists. So Facebook, a pervasive electronic meeting place for exchanging political ideas, had removed the page of a significant foreign, left-wing news organization AND the mainstream news media said nothing.
Where was the mainstream news media’s defense of the Freedom of Speech? Where is the discussion about the changing landscape of public discourse and how a private company, Facebook, could now limit free speech?
Furthermore, where was the mainstream news media’s defense of the Freedom of the Press? Where is the discussion about the Fourth Estate and the essential breadth of ideas that are necessary to a democracy?
Bear in mind this is the same mainstream news media that howled about the removal of a reporter from a presidential press conference. Indeed this treatment of a mainstream reporter was probably one factor in encouraging over 300 newspapers to write editorials about Trump’s threat to a free press. Yet the Boston Globe, which led the effort, along with so many other newspapers, still have not mentioned the recent censorship of teleSur English.
Rolling down the slippery slope of censorship
In contrast to teleSUR English, five major portals taking down Alex Jones’s accounts received plenty of coverage. The problem is most of the coverage approved of the censorship due to Jones’s sensationalist and conspiratorial content. After a quick search, I had found that while some articles had a limited discussion of the threat to free speech, most of the articles were either neutral reporting of the events, supportive of the censorship, or some combination of the two.
In one such article, The New York Times provided extensive coverage on Facebook’s internal deliberations on Alex Jones and his organization, InfoWars. The Times acknowledged the slippery slope of suppressing free speech, but then noted in the middle of the article:
Slippery-slope fears about mass censorship by social media platforms are probably overblown. For starters, Infowars presented an unusual case because of its size, the extreme nature of its content and the ferocity of Mr. Jones’s critics. Mr. Zuckerberg does not have time to adjudicate every dispute over hate speech on Facebook, nor does he want to.”
Yet this analysis actually ignores the slippery-slope argument. Today the portals censor an obviously heinous man who questioned whether the school shooting at Sandy Hook was (implausibly) staged. Note, though, that this same man also questions the government’s imperialism overseas. Tomorrow the portals may censor a person who also questions U.S. militarism, for they will be able to find a failure to meet the portal’s policy elsewhere, thereby censoring that voice for hate speech too. Eventually, further down the slope, questioning the government will become hate speech in itself.
Furthermore, the Times has now advocated that “extreme nature of . . content and the ferocity of . . critics” in response provide a legitimate reason to limit free speech. Is this a new doctrine the Times supports for dismantling one of our most cherished rights? The Times seems to have forgotten that the principle of free speech is based upon protecting unpopular commentary in a democracy, even if it is extreme. In addition, who decides what is sufficiently extreme content and faces ferocious enough critique? Is it the internet portal that claims it is not responsible for that content posted (as discussed below) that is supposed to be the arbiter of speech that can be censored?
In any case, limiting free speech regardless of the censor is a dangerous precedent. History has shown us that this is how democracies die.
Too easily silenced
Peter Van Buren — a 24-year veteran of the State Department and currently a member of VIPS, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity — is one example of the slide down the slippery slope. After a heated Twitter exchange with peers from the establishment, Twitter permanently banned Van Buren. Others defending Van Buren were suspended as well. In his own words, Van Buren’s speech was inflammatory and possibly threatening in one tweet. Yet Van Buren noted that he has sent 29,000 tweets over seven years. Could one tweet earn this dissenter with vast experience and insight a lifetime ban? In my own experience of heated debates on Facebook, I frequently face inflammatory and threatening comments — none, to my knowledge, resulting in bans. Therefore, I highly doubt one threatening or inflammatory statement could justify a lifetime ban on any social media portal.
As VIPS noted in its support for Van Buren addressed to Twitter:
[Twitter’s] action suggests three possibilities – all of which are quite plausible, given that your system for punishing users is far from transparent.
First, you may be engaged in systematic manipulation if some of your users are able to complain and have their friends do likewise in order to sully the reputation of a Twitter user who is doing little more than engaging in heated debate over issues that concern all of us.
Second, there is a distinct possibility that you are responding to either deep-pocketed or particularly strident advocacy groups that may themselves have agendas to silence opposition voices. We note that Google is currently working with some powerful foundations to censor content they object to which comes up in search engine results.
Finally — third — we also suspect a possible government hand, in that companies like yours, to include Facebook, have become very sensitive to alleged ‘subversive’ content, deleting accounts and blocking users. Kowtowing to government suggestions to silence critics of administration policies may well be considered a desirable proactive step by your management as well as by other social media companies, but censorship is censorship, no matter how you dress it up.”
In short, VIPS is suggesting that the influential can shut down free speech in what is now part of the public commons — the electronic portals where the public communicates with one another.
Which brings us back to teleSUR English and one particular article covering Julian Assange. First consider that the mainstream news media has failed to defend their fellow publisher who has provided them invaluable information for so many of their articles. To make matters worse, teleSUR’s coverage of Glenn Greenwald’s comments showed how the mainstream media falsely reported Ecuador’s stance on Assange’s isolation in its embassy. In other words, the mainstream media not only fails to protect another member of the press, but actually falsely portrayed his already difficult situation.
The bottom line: the clampdown on any speech will eventually lead to the censorship of dissent
Let’s tie all of this together. The mainstream media fails to comment on Facebook’s shutting down of a significant news organization that is not part of the establishment. This news organization provides original coverage with a left-wing perspective on a wide variety of news, including the mainstream media’s false portrayal of Julian Assange. Julian Assange is the founder and face of WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is a publisher that provides invaluable information on government wrongdoing and has never had to retract a single document as false. Yet the mainstream media has done little to protect their fellow journalist Assange as well. Therefore, Facebook and the mainstream media are cutting off reliable sources of news that challenge the political establishment.
This is the beginning of the de facto end of the Freedom of Speech and the Freedom of the Press. For if portals providing the main source of communication among the People can censor at will, ultimately dissent will be kept from the eyes of the People. Yes, these dissenters are free to post elsewhere, but effectively, most readers will never find their information and commentary when dissent is blocked from the most common venues.
In the age of electronic communications, these internet portals have become the public commons and should be treated as such despite their private ownership. Indeed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that was signed into law in 1996 provides internet portals with immunity for the posts of their users. In other words, the current law effectively states internet portals are public commons where they cannot be expected to regulate the speech posted. Then shouldn’t the internet portals also be held to the standard of not determining when to limit speech as well? If we don’t give these portals the status of the public commons, dissenters could be censored and forced to post in places far less likely to be viewed. Thus their dissent will be as irrelevant as protestors sequestered in the Free Speech Zones of political party conventions.
Personally, I predicted that if the censoring of Alex Jones did not raise an uproar, the Left would be next. Especially after Van Buren was banned by Twitter. This is the inevitable consequence of allowing censorship, whether by government or by private companies whose fortunes are subject to government regulation. Allow for the censorship of one person, no matter how heinous his or her views are, and you can rest assured that more of the anti-establishment narrative is next.
Top Photo | A protest against censorship in front of the Facebook Office in Warsaw, Poland, Nov. 5, 2016. Czarek Sokolowski | AP
Ian Berman is an entrepreneur and former corporate banker at leading global banks in New York City. He now focuses on financial advisory services and writing about representative government, equitable public policies and ending American militarism and Israel’s continuing colonization of Palestine. He is the Co-Founder of Palestine 365, the Ongoing Oppression and its predecessor, Palestine 365, on Facebook.