To Fight 'Extremism,' Journalists Are Praising Online Censorship

Social media platforms and governments are "voluntarily" teaming up to ban "violent extremist content." What could go wrong?


At the same time journalists are warning about the threat posed by the White House's Tech Bias Story Sharing Tool, which collects complaints against social-media platforms that are mean to conservatives, they are also beside themselves because the Trump administration is refusing to sign The Christchurch Call, a non-binding pledge "to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online" that's been signed by online service providers and the governments of New Zealand, France, and 16 other countries.

Let's be unambiguous: Trump's online complaint department is stupid and worthless, especially because, as Elizabeth Nolan Brown has pointed out, it is likely to become a dumping ground for dubious claims of being "shadowbanned." It's not good to have the government collecting political complaints in the name of protecting free speech. At the same time, it's absolutely terrifying to see governments and tech giants such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter sign even non-binding agreements to, among other things, "prevent the upload of terrorist and violent extremist content and to prevent its dissemination on social media and similar content-sharing services, including its immediate and permanent removal."

Judging by the recent permanent bans at Facebook leveled against Louis Farrakhan and Alex Jones, the signers of the Christchurch Call effectively conflate the delusional rants of idiots with live streams of mass shootings. Somehow we've ended up with the American government chumming for politically motivated attacks on free speech and foreign governments and tech giants pushing for "voluntary" restrictions on what is considered acceptable expression. What could possibly go wrong here?

Yet some outlets and journalists say even more needs to be done. "Instead of cracking down on violent extremism, the [U.S.] government is collecting email addresses," clucks The Verge. "Other countries are taking much more aggressive action," writes Casey Newton. "Australia and Singapore have proposed onerous new laws against social platforms that require them to remove some content immediately, under penalty of massive fines or even jail time for executives….Social networks have an important role to play in reducing the spread of terrorism. But they need help from the countries in which they operate. It's heartening that 18 governments today committed to working with them on the project—and beyond dispiriting that the United States, for the most craven of reasons, opted out."

But what the New Zealand government did in the wake of the Christchurch, New Zealand, mass shooting, should disturb anyone who believes in free speech. The government went so far as to ban the manifesto of the shooter and video of the shooting.

"Chief Censor" David Shanks banned possession of both the video record [shooter Brenton] Tarrant made of his crimes, as well as the manifesto he produced explaining what he hoped to accomplish by slaughtering people. Shanks declared it "illegal to have a copy of the video or document, or to share these with others." Knowing possession of either the video or the manifesto by unauthorized individuals is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and NZ$50,000, while distribution can get you 14 years behind bars.

That's simply terrifying and positively dystopian. Do people really think that possessing a book or a text or a video means the owner is enslaved by it or even agrees with its messages?

As Jack Shafer pointed out in Politico, the New Zealand media also decided to censor their coverage of the shooting and its aftermath.

Representatives of Radio New Zealand, TVNZ, Mediaworks, Stuff and the owner of the New Zealand Herald signed a pact agreeing to limit their news coverage of Brenton Tarrant, the man charged in the March 15 Christchurch massacre of 50 worshipers at two mosques. Following the guidelines, the news organizations vow to limit coverage of statements "that actively champion white supremacist or terrorist ideology," avoid quoting the accused killer's "manifesto," and suppress any "message, imagery, symbols" or hand signs like a Nazi salute made by the accused or his supporters in support of white supremacy. "Where the inclusion of such signals in any images is unavoidable, the relevant parts of the image shall be pixelated," the guidelines add.

This sort of response makes me think of Stetson Kennedy, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and revealed just how banal and childish many of their rituals, titles, and activities were in his 1954 blockbuster I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan. The level of ridicule he brought to bear on the Klan helped destroy its credibility and power. Something similar happened to Scientology when its secret documents were made public via the internet in the early 1990s and I'd argue that exposure and engagement helped to deflate the alt-right bubble of a few years ago. As long as Milo Yiannopoulis or Richard Spencer were prevented from speaking, they could at least seem potentially threatening. Once they actually had to say what they believed, they disappeared in a whiff of smoke. On a pragmatic level, the idea that hiding details and suppressing information about extremists will reduce their power seems wrong.

More fundamentally, though, it should be deeply worrying to anyone who believes in free expression that governments and corporations are openly working together to decide what is and is not acceptable speech. Does anyone really trust the wisdom and sagacity of Twitter's Jack Dorsey or Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg—much less President Donald Trump or the leaders of Singapore (ranked 151st out of 181 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders)—when it comes to defining good speech?

Between threatened crackdowns by Republicans and Democrats and European Union bureaucrats and cave-ins by tech giants trying to preserve market positions, the era of the open internet is almost certainly over. But that's no reason to go gentle into that good night and allow free speech to be snuffed out like a candle, sacrificed in the name of fighting "online extremism." We need to rebuild a consensus and a culture that answers bad speech with more and better speech, not voluntary "bans" and fear that our neighbors are too easily gulled into hatred and violence.