Sup­port­ing fact over false­hood

Con­spir­acy the­o­ries and other un­truths have no place on the in­ter­net. So­cial net­works should de­fend real free­dom of speech

Financial Mail - - PATTERN RECOGNITION - @shap­shak

An in­ter­est­ing de­bate about free speech is un­fold­ing over the no­to­ri­ous right-wing in­ter­net troll Alex Jones and his In­fowars con­spir­acy chan­nel. He and his site have been banned by Face­book, Ap­ple and Youtube — but, con­tro­ver­sially, not by Twit­ter.

Jones is a di­vi­sive fig­ure. He is loved by a large clique of rightwingers who be­lieve what he spouts. But it is patent non­sense for any­one who reads and watches the news.

In the past few months, Jones’s fac­tu­ally un­true rant­ing has be­come the epi­cen­tre of a de­bate about free­dom of speech on so­cial me­dia.

Free speech should be pro­tected, goes the mantra most right-think­ing peo­ple agree on, of­ten cit­ing the fa­mous quote at­trib­uted to Voltaire: “I dis­ap­prove of what you say, but I will de­fend to the death your right to say it.” (This quote is it­self con­tro­ver­sial. Some dis­pute whether he said it or whether it was said about him.)

But what hap­pens if free speech is in­flam­ma­tory, or just plain wrong?

That’s the prob­lem with In­fowars — the in­for­ma­tion on it is not true. The site has de­nied the Sandy Hook school mas­sacre and the Holo­caust. An ex­am­ple of Jones’s con­vo­luted logic is his at­tack on David Hogg — a sur­vivor of this year’s school shoot­ing in Park­land in the US — call­ing for bet­ter gun con­trol: “The Nazis did wear arm­bands, David Hogg wears one. The Nazis were a youth move­ment, they didn’t want the guns. And so if the shoe fits, wear it.” Huh?

Face­book fi­nally took down his pages last week — only af­ter CEO Mark Zucker­berg had hu­mil­i­ated him­self by de­fend­ing the rights of Holo­caust de­niers in a now in­fa­mous pod­cast in July. That he’s Jewish is be­side the point, but should heighten his per­cep­tion of the hurt­ful­ness of such de­nial­ism. Face­book has been al­low­ing such hate speech and other drivel on its pages and news feed for years.

Zucker­berg said: “I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of peo­ple who deny that the Holo­caust hap­pened. I find that deeply of­fen­sive. But … I don’t be­lieve our plat­form should take that down, be­cause I think there are things dif­fer­ent peo­ple get wrong. I don’t think they’re in­ten­tion­ally get­ting it wrong.”

That must be one of the dumb­est things ever said by a CEO.

Ap­ple and Spo­tify re­moved Jones’s pod­casts, and Youtube even­tu­ally took down his videos. But Twit­ter said he had not vi­o­lated its terms and con­di­tions — un­til CNN’S Oliver Darcy pointed out how many times he had got it wrong. So Twit­ter sus­pended him for a week. Re­ally. A week.

The prob­lem faced by so­cial net­works is their fear of a back­lash from US con­ser­va­tives. It also re­lates to the amount of traf­fic they seem to get from th­ese posts.

Free speech is im­por­tant, as we know from years of apartheid cen­sor­ship. But bla­tantly false con­spir­acy the­o­ries are not.

So­cial net­works need to find their back­bones, es­tab­lish a moral core and stand up for real free­dom of speech.

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