Tag Archives: Censorship

Freedom of speech and the US political crisis

Thom Dunn on Medium really hits it on the head in describing the current crisis surrounding the ejection of the President from major social media platforms. Many have been laboring under the illusion that social media dialogue is akin to public exchange in a town square; in fact, the correct operative analogy is to a private club, and this misunderstanding was decisively cleared up for those thus deluded when the bouncers at their own discretion kicked them out.

Indeed, rather than an assault on unfettered free speech, which was never really on offer in the first place, the move of the social media titans signals a realignment of business interests, which have decided to comprehensively ditch the MAGA movement. This development is wholly compatible with models of delegitimization crises, such as the classic one by Michel Dobry.

Censorship about censorship

In further news on a story I posted about in late September, it has now surfaced that Zoom has cancelled academic events scheduled to discuss its previous cancellation. Beyond the political merits of the issue, from a business standpoint I suspect that the company’s position will quickly become untenable and that if it persists in its current interpretation of its ToS its competitors will crowd it out of the academic market (already, one of the cancelled events was able to migrate to Google Meets). Telling universities to refrain from discussion is like telling a rivet factory to refrain from metalworking; the fact that in this situation it has become impossible to draw a frame around an issue, so as to modify the sociolinguistic norms that preside over it, has produced a surreal outcome: this is not an equilibrium, and is destined to change.

Violence, content moderation, and IR

Interesting article by James Vincent in The Verge about a decision by Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube to shut down a university webinar over fears of disseminating opinions advocating violence “carried out by […] criminal or terrorist organizations”. The case is strategically placed at the intersection of several recent trends.

On the one hand, de-platforming as a means of struggle to express outrage at the views of an invited speaker is a tactic that has been used often, especially on college campuses, even before the beginning of the pandemic and for in-person events. However, it appears that the pressure in this specific case was brought to bear by external organizations and lobby groups, without a visible grassroots presence within the higher education institution in question, San Francisco State University. Moreover, such pressure was exerted by means of threats of legal liability not against SFSU, but rather targeting the third-party, commercial platforms enabling diffusion of the event, which was to be held as a remote-only webinar for epidemiological concerns. Therefore, the university’s decision to organize the event was thwarted not by the pressure of an in-person crowd and the risk of public disturbances, but by the choice of a separate, independent actor, imposing external limitations derived from its own Terms of Service, when faced with potential litigation.

The host losing agency to the platform is not the only story these events tell, though. It is not coincidental that the case involves the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, and that the de-platformed individual was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who participated in two plane hijackings in 1969-70. The transferral of an academic discussion to an online forum short-circuited the ability academic communities have traditionally enjoyed to re-frame discussions on all topics –even dangerous, taboo, or divisive ones– as being about analyzing and discussing, not about advocating and perpetrating. At the same time, post-9/11 norms and attitudes in the US have applied a criminal lens to actions and events that in their historical context represented moves in an ideological and geopolitical struggle. Such a transformation may represent a shift in the pursuit of the United States’ national interest, but what is striking about this case is that a choice made at a geo-strategic, Great Power level produces unmediated consequences for the opinions and rights of expression of individual citizens and organizations.

This aspect in turn ties in to the debate on the legitimacy grounds of platform content moderation policies: the aspiration may well be to couch such policies in universalist terms, and even take international human rights law as a framework or a model; however, in practice common moral prescriptions against violence scale poorly from the level of individuals in civil society to that of power politics and international relations, while the content moderation norms of the platforms are immersed in a State-controlled legal setting which, far from being neutral, is decisively shaped by their ideological and strategic preferences.

Ideological balance in banning

Interesting article in The Intercept about Facebook’s attempt to achieve ideological balance in its banning practices by juxtaposing its purge of QAnon-related accounts with one of Antifa ones. Whether such equivalence is at all warranted on its merits is largely beside the point: FB finds itself in exactly the same situation as the old-media publishers of yore, desperate for the public to retain the perception of its equidistance. Antifa was merely the most media-salient target available for this type of operation.

It is unclear to me that there still is a significant middle-ground public who cares about this type of equidistance in its editorial gatekeepers, so perhaps the more cynical suspicions, such as Natasha Lennard’s, that this is simply a move to curry favor with the current Administration in the middle of an election might not be off-track. What is more significant in the long term is that the content-moderation scrutiny FB now undergoes, chiefly because of its size, will only intensify going forward, forcing it to conduct ever more of these censoring operations. This restriction on debate will, in turn, eventually and progressively push more radical political discourse elsewhere online.

On the whole, I think this is a positive development: organizations that think of themselves as radically anti-establishment should own up to the fact that there is no reason they should count on being platformed by so integral a part of the contemporary establishment as FB. Public space for political mobilization is not confined to the internet, and the internet is not confined to giant social media platforms.