Anyone who is not amused by the tantrum of a spoilt child who at long last breaks that gratingly noisy toy some distant relative unthinkingly gave them has a heart of stone.
But just as most of us have qualms about openly mocking upset children, many on the left kept to themselves the warm glow of satisfaction that followed from Trump having his preferred trumpet of Twitter snatched from his hands. Our reticence is likely the result of a fear of damaging the cause of free speech.
The internet has been for many years a realm where free speech has been assumed. It has been the rise of Trump, and his flank to the right of fascists and conspiracy theorists, that has led to the consequences of the laissez faire attitude being increasingly questioned.
Perhaps we have become a little desensitised to Trump. Five years ago it would have seemed absurd to imagine that some of the largest corporations in the world should decide to silence the President of the USA, albeit one who had just lost an election, in the name of democracy and bourgeois order. Furthermore, when Trump’s supporters turned to a smaller social media platform, Parler, it was banished from iPhones, Google’s app store and booted off its Amazon-owned servers, shutting it down. (Temporarily. Parler has however found a new home on Epik, an internet hosting company that is home to some of the worst of the far right on the internet including 8Chan/8Kun, Gab and the Daily Stormer, although Epik itself is reviled and has a precarious existence).
This article will explore the issues that go beyond free speech, and why a major section of capital has decided there is a problem. But importantly, I will argue, it is a problem that these digital corporations have had a role in creating.
The left and the workers’ movement should be worried about our hard-won freedom of speech. Last Friday (22 January) saw the British SWP having its main page disabled by Facebook alongside other of its events and local pages. The US Socialist Equality Party (an arid sect originating in Healy’s WRP, but it is unlikely that was the issue for Facebook) suffered a similar censoring. Both had their pages (perhaps only most of their pages) restored, as the SWP previously had when they were similarly taken down last December.
This is a worrying reminder of the unaccountable and arbitrary power of the social media corporations. But the left are not their main focus.
Their focus is on the right, especially the far-right conspiracy sect QAnon (see Solidarity 564 and 570). QAnon may appear to operate in a fantasy world where, in one of its favourite themes, Trump is a crusader against a deep state whose elite drink the blood of tortured children. It is not known who is behind QAnon, but it seems to repurpose material from some of the darkest parts of the online cesspit of neo-Nazi racism and antisemitism to attract an audience of Trump supporters.
The real world and online presence of the traditional far right feed on those radicalised by QAnon, as do other organisations of the far right reconfigured to act as a bridge to fascism for Trump supporters. The Proud Boys are only the best known example of this.
That it is the right that constitutes the main focus for the social media platforms’ turn to censorship is clear if we look at its roots in July 2020 when Twitter announced it was targeting 150,000 QAnon aligned accounts and the following month when Facebook announced a programme to “Address Movements and Organisations Tied to Violence”.
At a time when there was some violence around the policing of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, the programme specifically targeted “offline anarchist groups that support violent acts amidst protests” as well as “US-based militia organizations and QAnon”. The anarchists (which Facebook also describes as “some” Antifa groups) disappeared from later iterations of the program, which fnow is described as “being focused on militarised social movements and violence-inducing conspiracy networks, such as QAnon.” It is unclear whether “militarised social movements” include Antifa groups, but it is likely that it applies only to armed right-wing militias.
The numbers suggest Facebook has been serious in implementing this programme. Published figures state that by January 2021 over 80,000 users have been removed and nearly 60,000 Facebook groups deleted. On the Facebook-owned Instagram, 67,000 accounts have been deactivated. Figures for anarchist groups were only published once in August 2020, but these suggest that less 1,000 Facebook groups were deleted along with around 500 individual profiles.
Twitter was slower to act. Only 7,000 accounts were suspended after the July announcement. Only after the recent far right mob rampage through the Capitol this January did Twitter close down a further 70,000 accounts.
There have been closures of left-wing Facebook groups and pages (almost all Antifa and related anarchist groups), but many fewer. As reported inMother Jones (a US anarchist leaning magazine) “Facebook has strained to project a measure of even-handedness in its enforcement actions, even in cases where problems are largely confined to its right-wing users.” Although Mother Jones does not go quite as far as to say it, it would appear anarchists and anti-fascists were taking a fall so Facebook could cover itself against accusations of political bias in the summer of 2020. However, since then Facebook appears to have dropped this stance. Its stated targets now appear to be firmly on the right.
There are good reasons why this retreat from uninhibited freedom of speech in the US has been led by the corporations, not least that one of the main abusers of that right was until recently in the White House.
The US is unusual in having a political culture that privileges freedom of speech over other rights in what has been called First Amendment absolutism. Any government action would be bogged down in Supreme Court proceedings at every turn and probably be declared unconstitutional. Ironically, the same First Amendment rights allow the platforms to control what is published if they wish.
In Europe, where the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech are more flexible, the assumption of no censorship of social media prevailed since 2000 as it did in the US. Here it is governments rather than corporations that have led the way in limiting free speech on internet platforms.
In Europe the situation is different to that in the US for a number of reasons. Right wing populists have not (on the whole) been in power in Europe, and Europe does not have the USA’s political culture that privileges the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
It was Germany that started the move towards some limitations of free speech on the internet. In 2017 Germany introduced its Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG). This required social media platforms to swiftly take down content reported to them as illegal if, on investigation, they found it to breach Germany’s criminal laws. These legal restrictions on the freedom of speech in Germany are sweeping and outlaw defamation of religion and statements that might elsewhere be considered little more than personal insult.
The 2017 law is deeply problematic in a number of ways, and the criminalisation of speech in Germany is far broader than any socialist should accept, but it should be recognised that the intended target of the law was not the left but the organised populist and far right (although there is much continuity of policy from post-war West Germany that pursued both denazification and anti-Communism with similar vigour).
Further tightening of the law was proposed in 2019, after a neo-Nazi murdered a conservative politician who had supported Germany’s liberal policies on admitting refugees. These new measures facilitate a level of data gathering by the state that the left rightly balks at, but they are not its primary target.
That the right is the primary target here should give the left cause to hesitate before raising the banner of free speech. We need to consider why the mainstream of bourgeois opinion is increasingly taking this view. But there we should also consider how social media has facilitated the re-emergence of the far right as a social force, in particular in forms like QAnon, and how social media in an important sense created QAnon.
How this has happened will be explored in the second part of this article next week. Part two of this article will also examine the varieties of “no platform” pursued by the left, the degree to which the left can accept social media cleaning up the mess they have made (or government’s pressing them to do so) and suggest some ideas about how a better social media might be possible.