Discussing InfoWars and Free Speech on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire Programme

The propaganda website InfoWars has been banned from Facebook, the Apple iTunes podcasting platform, and Spotify. Most people have welcomed the fact that these technology companies have finally acted to enforce their own terms and conditions, though others (including, obviously, InfoWars itself) says that this is an infringement of free speech.

I was invited onto the BBC Victoria Derbyshire TV programme today to discuss the issue, alongside Karin Robinson from Democrats Abroad; and Neil Heslin, whose son was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and who has been taunted and harassed by the InfoWars website and its supporters.

You can watch a clip of the segment below or on YouTube. The entire two hour programme is available on the BBC iPlayer.

During the interview I was pleased to be able to state my total opposition to what InfoWars publishes. A crucial aspect to the concept of freedom of expression is using your own right to speak to counter distasteful views. It’s always worth beginning with such statements, especially if one then goes on to express concern about censorship of offensive people (as I often do).

I was also able to point out that this is not a formal case of censorship: the U.S. government is not involved and no laws have been activated. Instead these are private companies enforcing their own terms and conditions. So it is wrong to equate this action with the prosecution of activists and writers around the world, which is what PEN spends most of its time campaigning against.

Finally, I sounded a note of caution. Since these social media companies are so big and pervasive, we are effectively in a situation where executives in Silicon Valley are deciding who gets to participate in political and cultural discussions. This should be of concern to citizens of the United States, but even more worrying for the rest of us: those same executives can determine who gets to participate in the British political conversation too! The pace of technological change means we have stumbled into this situation without considering the consequences for free speech and democracy.

Of course there were of course a few things that I did not have time to say.

The first of these was the worry about what will happen next. Alex Jones and Infowars are already seeking to portray themselves as free speech martyrs. Hate-mongering radicals usually delight in being banned by the mainstream. It bestows on them a certain kind of relevancy and kudos.

When a publisher like InfoWars gets banned by the mainstream, that also affects its readers in negative and perhaps dangerous ways. To the followers of InfoWars, this censorship will feel like a rebuke. A hostile act. A signal that the mainstream does not value them. This might actually be true and fair, but it also means that these followers are likely to double-down in their support for the website and it’s vile output. And when a society sends a signal that certain people are to be ostracised, those people can start to behave in even more unpleasant and violent ways.

This action by the technology companies is also a gift to authoritarians around the world. Places like Turkey and China love to use the language of extremism as a way of shutting down genuine political dissent. Now this precedent has been set, I foresee that those regimes who do not appreciate criticism will seek to lobby Facebook and the others to remove independent publications from the platform on the basis that they too are ‘extremism’ or ‘fake news’. If the monetary pay-out is worth it, the technology companies will likely collaborate in this endeavour, which would be a real issue for global free speech. Only this week it was revealed that Google plans to launch a censored search app in China.

What is to be done about all this?

In the short-to-medium term, there are probably some technical solutions that might help. The technology giants could develop better mechanisms that might alert users to hate speech and fake news. Perhaps they could also open up their API again, so that innovators can build new tools to solve specific problems. And the social media platforms should certainly firm up their Terms & Conditions, so at least everyone knows where they stand. At the moment they are confusing and ambiguous.

In the UK, our laws around offensive speech should also be updated. The Government says it wants to have a new law to combat ‘extremism’ but Ministers cannot come up with a consistent definition of ‘extremism’. Its crucial to have clarity of terms in the actual law, in order to guide the private companies.

But really, what we need are long term solutions. There might be technical or legal inventions that would work, but as someone who works for a free speech campaign group, I’m more interested in how we might equip everyone to spot and counter both fake news and hate speech.

Media Studies is a really important subject. Perhaps it should be a compulsory subject?

English PEN spends a lot of time promoting literary translation. As globalisation takes hold, multilingualism becomes an huge advantage. We English speakers (whether living in the U.K. or the U.S.A.) need to ensure that we are equipped to properly compete on the global stage. We must encourage our kids to learn Chinese, Hindi, Arabic and Russian, as well as Spanish and Portuguese. I think that if more people forge business and cultural relationships across  language barriers, propagandists like Alex Jones will become far less effective. And there is no need to ban someone who is fading into irrelevance.

Promoting cross-cultural dialogue and diversity of opinion is central to the spirit of free speech. There is no free speech Shangri-La, where only peaceful, progressive opinions are expressed. But we should at least be spending as much effort in giving a platform to new voices, as we do into denying a platform to harmful voices. This project is something that the tech giants could help with, if only they have the vision and the will.

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