Facebook, Twitter, and Google are all banned… in China. They are among numerous sites that are banned for their ability to present and propagate views that would disrupt or endanger the social structure of the nation. Here are just some of the sites China bans.
In the U.S, the same sites blocked in China do their own blocking. It is they who decide which ideas or individuals they don’t like. The government can pressure web hosting services like GoDaddy to remove certain sites, but it’s up to the sites to do the dirty work. These are private companies and, as such, have their own rules. It is they who determine what constitutes hate speech. It is they who determine the parameters of free speech.
I’ve visited Gab from time to time, mainly because their humor section had a good collection of memes. Yes, there was some disturbing stuff there: A lot of racist stuff, a lot of anti-Semitic stuff, and lots of stuff which could be just classified as being in bad taste. I just figured that’s the price you pay for having a site that is dedicated to free speech. Sure, some people obviously took advantage of this freedom, but have you ever visited Reddit or 4chan? You feel like you need to take a shower after visiting these sites. Why haven’t they been taken down? True, some posts are removed from time to time by their administrators, and you can expect more removals of incendiary posts after they see how Gab was unfriended by web hosts.
One problem with blocking controversial websites or individuals is that it gives them a boost in popularity. In other words, they may attain more attention and even more validity than they had before they were blocked. Gab will certainly become more popular when it reopens. Another more philosophic reason for not blocking sites with distasteful posts is that they give us a window into the ways these fringe groups think, whether we like their ideas or not. Would it have helped if we had taken mass murderer Robert Bower’s rants more seriously and not discounted them because they were made on a fringe site? Maybe, but it would have been almost impossible to do this. There are so many hateful rants on these sites that it’s impossible to tell which ones are sincere and which are just posturing.
Gab is only temporarily down, but, because they have admitted working with law enforcement, they have lost their aura as a bastion of free speech. The truth is that there isn’t and never has been true free speech. The designers of the U.S. Constitution didn’t mean that, by free speech, Americans should be allowed to insult and slander anyone they wanted without consequences. As proof of this, take the case of the vice president shooting and killing the former secretary of state for insulting him. That’s what happened when Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton. Imagine if insults were treated so seriously today. There would be dead bodies of politicians littering the floors of the House and Senate.
So, the writers of the Constitution could not have anticipated insult platforms, like Twitter, or sites that hosted anonymous hate speech against random groups. There was, at that time, an inherent belief in human civility which was a, perhaps naïve, belief that civilized people had an axiomatic understanding of the rules of decent human discourse. As Burr noted at the time, “political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the necessity of a rigid adherence to the laws of honor and the rules of decorum”. Freedom of speech meant the freedom to present ideas, whether they were popular or not.
Making website administrators the arbiters of free speech boundaries is somewhat unrealistic. What qualifications do they have? What standards do they use? In short, each administrator will probably develop idiosyncratic standards that are going to upset someone at sometime. Let’s look at what the CEO of Gab, Andrew Torba, said in response to his website being ‘no-platformed’.
“Gab has spent the past 48 hours proudly working with the DOJ and FBI to bring justice to an alleged terrorist. Because of the data we provided, they now have plenty of evidence for their case.”
It seems pretty clear from this admission that when Gab returns, it will not be the same as it was. It will no longer be perceived as a platform for free speech by its members. But maybe that’s good. Maybe that will drive those who want to express hate elsewhere. But do we really want potentially dangerous people to hide in encrypted communication on obscure websites, or do we want to keep an eye on them?
Torba believes there was a conspiracy to get Gab ‘no-platformed’ because it was seen as a “threat to the media and to the Silicon Valley Oligarchy.” This is probably overstating the issue. Gab just happened to have the wrong poster at the wrong time and, as such, became a victim of circumstance. However, his claim that, “we will exercise every possible avenue to keep Gab online and defend free speech and individual liberty for all people” now seems unrealistic, even though the site may continue to be attractive to those on the right.
Torba does, however, make one good point when he claims that,
“you have all just made Gab a nationally recognized brand as the home of free speech online at a time when Silicon Valley is stifling political speech they disagree with to interfere in a US election.”
It’s certainly true that more people are aware of Gab than they ever were before. It is questionable as to whether Silicon Valley had much to do with banning them or if they thought of Gab as a serious threat. True, many believe that the major social media sites have too much power and can take down posts that may challenge their own personal, political viewpoints. In short, these social media sites may have a built-in political bias. To its credit, Gab is open to any opinion. Most who post on the site seem to hold conservative views, but not alt-right views as the mainstream media seems to believe. Then again, to those on the left, any conservative views could be branded as alt-right.
For example, Facebook has been recently wrestling with a frog. The frog in question is named, Pepe. Pepe is a legitimate cartoon character but he has been abducted by the so-called alt-right to promote certain extreme viewpoints. Pepe can appear on Facebook, but only if his viewpoints seem proper. Sadly, Pepe was not so lucky with Twitter. When the Anti-Defamation League officially listed him as a hate symbol, his guest appearances on Twitter were banned. Merchandise featuring Pepe has also been banned from the iOS App Store: “Your app contains images and references of Pepe the Frog, which are considered objectionable content.”
In his own defense, Torba continues,
“the internet is not reality. TV is not reality. 80% of normal everyday people agree with Gab and support free expression and liberty. The online outrage mob and mainstream media spin machine are the minority opinion. People are waking up, so please keep pointing the finger at a social network instead of pointing the finger at the alleged shooter who holds sole responsibility for his actions.”
Admittedly, this is something of a rant. To condense this a bit, he is saying that people want the freedom to express their opinions, even if these opinions go against those held by the mainstream media. Torba believes the murderer holds sole responsibility for his actions and that the Gab website was a victim of collateral damage. Would disallowing comments by someone set on murder have stopped the murder?
Torba ends his statement saying, “no-platform us all you want. Ban us all you want. Smear us all you want. You can’t stop an idea.” He then promises to be back online shortly, and he, no doubt, will be. Other conservative websites exist and other platforms, such as Reddit, allow for conservative and alt-right groups to form under their own rules. Still, Gab did seem to have an advantage in its ease of use. It allowed members to filter content and also had a category for “controversial” material. Maybe, but when I would look at the humor section there seemed to be posts that were more controversial than funny and more hateful than thoughtful.
Still, Gab may be on to something. If they allow filtered content then it is up to the individual site user to determine how much they want to be offended. Maybe, rather than leave censorship up to the whims of a site administrator, we should take it into our own hands. Forcing sites to include filters that individuals can manipulate may be the best way to preserve free speech. In that case, if you’re offended, you have no one to blame but yourself.